Tornadoes Hit Kentucky and These Linn County Men Responded | Local

A Sweet Home High School alumnus and current Millersburg resident were part of a team that helped Kentucky residents recover from the devastation of tornadoes that tore through the area in December.

A month after the National Weather Service said 66 powerful tornadoes created a path of destruction across eight states, many are still working to clean up their properties so they can start rebuilding. The Kentucky governor’s office says at least 13 people have died in Hopkins County. Those who survived have a long road to recovery, which includes rebuilding entire communities. READ MORE: Newsy Investigates: OSHA Violations at Tornado-Struck Candle Factory Hopkins County resident Billy Wells is retired and spends all his time helping the community organize teardowns, the removing trees and helping media managers find residents with stories to share. He showed us several neighborhoods where only piles of debris remain. He says that the houses that are still standing must be demolished. Wells also helped crews clear a path so photographer Tandy Cook could walk up the road to what remains of her property. focused on collecting small keepsakes she lost when the tornado hit. Countless photos ended up in neighboring states, swept away miles away by the power of the storms. “Most of our photos ended up in Elizabeth, Indiana, or all the way to Louisville and La Grange,” Cook said. “But I was very grateful to have it all.”

Will Chiaffino, 46, and Bill Blair, 71, were part of a Team Rubicon volunteer operation that mobilized hundreds of volunteers to help local residents. Team Rubicon is an international non-governmental organization specializing in disaster response.

“After seeing footage of the devastation there, I wanted to see if I could help,” said Chiaffino, who helped chainsaws cut debris and trees to help clear the area and make the neighborhoods again habitable.

“There are obviously a lot of dangers after tornadoes,” he said. “Big trees overturned, snapped and, you know, right behind the neighborhoods. There were many grateful people (and) were there to help them, secure their properties.

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Other crews dug through the debris for personal items, in what is being called a “clean-up” operation.

Blair was the incident commander, overseeing the organizational structure and deployment of personnel and resources. As someone involved in several Team Rubicon operations, he described the destruction in Kentucky as one of the most severe he had seen.

“It was pretty devastating,” he said of the tornado damage. “It was a long tornado path. … I heard it was a few hundred miles that it went through.

The effort was coordinated from a forward operating base in Perdonia, Kentucky. The operation was dubbed Unbridled Spirit, which saw hundreds of “greyshirts” — the nickname for T-shirt-clad volunteers who work for Team Rubicon — in western Kentucky to help with recovery efforts.

This military terminology is not a coincidence, it reflects the history of the association.

Team Rubicon was co-founded in 2010 by former US Marine Corps sniper Jake Wood, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he saw the devastation following the earthquake in Haiti, he decided to form a team to help.

From this initial effort, Team Rubicon was born. Since then, the organization has been responsible for 785 field operations, ranging from natural disasters to even the COVID-19 response, according to the organization’s website.

Although membership is not required, Team Rubicon caters to veterans and first responders. Blair and Chiaffino served in the armed forces before joining Team Rubicon.

Chiaffino was an air traffic controller for the Navy and Air Force, while Blair was in the Army from 1968 to 1972 and stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War.

However, Blair pointed out, all kinds of people are joining volunteer operations.

“We are about 65% veterans and the rest are first responders, law enforcement and just regular civilians. … We call them “ass-kicking civilians,” Blair said. “No matter who you are or what your skills are, there’s something for everyone who wants to be part of the Rubicon team.”

While the nonprofit has made a name for itself responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises — including helping relocate Afghan refugees last year — the organization also works locally. Blair estimated there were about 600 grayshirts in the Pacific Northwest and even a branch in Salem, so local volunteers could quickly mobilize to help with things like distributing the COVID-19 vaccine or d other local events.

“We want to prepare that if things happen here that we would be able to respond here before we send gray shirts out,” Blair said.

Both Chiaffino and Blair described their deployments with Team Rubicon as fulfilling and eye-opening.

“It’s the neatest organization I’ve ever worked for and been involved with,” Blair said.

Troy Shinn covers health care, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or [email protected] He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.

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