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One year after a tornado ripped through Mayfield, Ky., residents are healing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A storm making its way across the country today has spawned tornadoes in Louisiana and Mississippi and threatens other southern states. The storm has killed at least two people and damaged dozens of homes and businesses. A year ago, tornadoes ripped across the country's heartland, and one of the hardest-hit towns is still picking up the pieces. Derek Operle of WKMS reports from Mayfield, Ky., where a tornado last year killed 24 people and injured hundreds more.

DEREK OPERLE, BYLINE: Gray late fall clouds hang over this small western Kentucky town. And nearly everywhere you go in Mayfield, you hear this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

OPERLE: Those are construction crews, some still taking down damaged buildings and others putting up new ones. Last year, the tornado wiped out the city's downtown. The carpet of two-by-fours, tree branches and broken glass has been cleaned up, but it's still so empty. Even Mayor Kathy O'Nan gets lost in the sea of blank foundations.

KATHY O'NAN: When I drive, it is disorienting sometimes still because our landmarks are completely gone.

OPERLE: City hall is still standing but damaged, so the mayor is working out of a strip mall. This tornado was one of 69 spawned by the storm that killed more than 90 people in five states. The twister that hit Mayfield carved one of the longest tracks in U.S. history and took out thousands of homes and businesses in the town alone. O'Nan says it's been difficult to see through the devastation, but all those blank foundations downtown are filled with potential.

O'NAN: What we're building now is a backdrop for my grandchildren's lives and the lives to come.

OPERLE: Through the process has been slow. There's been a freeze on building permits in a historic area downtown so the community can plan what it wants for the future. It's set to end later this month, and O'Nan expects to hear a lot of hammers this spring. But for many, the recovery process isn't moving fast enough. At a deli and butcher shop that the tornado just missed, longtime Mayfield resident Beverly Benefield still cries when she thinks of how much work has to be done for her hometown to recover.

BEVERLY BENEFIELD: I feel it's going very slow, very slow. I'm very disappointed in the progress, you know? But of course, everything, it takes time.

OPERLE: Many tornado survivors are still without permanent homes. Some are couch surfing or staying with relatives.

DAKOTA MOORE: All right. So right here is my room. Here's where I sleep.

OPERLE: Twenty-one-year-old Dakota Moore now lives in one of about two dozen trailers, tiny houses and shipping container homes that a local nonprofit set up at a campground. The night the tornado hit, Moore and his mother were working at Mayfield Consumer Products. That's the candle factory that collapsed and trapped more than 90 people inside. He remembers the moment it happened.

MOORE: And my ears are ringing. I don't hear anything else. All of a sudden, I just feel this push of just wind behind me.

OPERLE: Moore wasn't hurt but lost his job and his apartment. Now, a year later, he sees a path forward through all of the loss.

MOORE: And I'm using that right there to better myself and help me and my future.

OPERLE: This week, Moore is taking the final steps to get his GED, and he's been working at a dollar store to save for what he hopes will be a down payment on a newly constructed home in town. The rebuilding, regardless of its pace, can't repair the hole in Zachary Daniel's heart. He lost his dad in the candle factory collapse.

ZACHARY DANIEL: Sometimes I still don't believe it. I can't call and pick up the phone.

OPERLE: He visited his father's grave for the one-year anniversary of the tornado and his death. Standing beside the headstone, Daniel said he does think the city is going to be OK.

DANIEL: I believe we're going to be all right in the next couple years or so. I believe in our town.

OPERLE: Just blocks away from the cemetery, the construction crews are working to make that belief a reality.

For NPR News, I'm Derek Operle in Mayfield, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Derek Operle