A year after tornadoes in Western Kentucky, recovery has only just started for some

Kendall Gilliam/Submitted

Tears fall and his voice cracks with emotion as Francisco Serrano, a Bowling Green native, relives how he survived an outbreak of tornadoes that tore through his hometown Dec. 10 and 11 last year.

A night out with friends dimmed by the flicker of street lights. The deathly silence and pitch black darkness that swallowed the world. Streets choked with electrical wires and debris. The howl of a tornado as it tore through town, leaving behind death and destruction.

Serrano’s parents lost their home that night. A tornado passed through the Moss Creek neighborhood, sweeping their home off its foundation with them trapped inside.

Both his mother and father survived; Serrano says they’re all lucky to be alive, even though the disaster made them homeless. Serrano also lost his apartment to another tornado, which he says he narrowly escaped.

This was only the first blow for Serrano, a Salvadoran with Indigenous Mayan roots. Serrano described the recurring, chronic trauma of being abandoned by the systems that were supposed to help and protect him after losing everything.

“It’s the trauma of being left behind over and over, again and again,” he said.

‘Survival mode’

As Serrano puts it, “surviving systems is nothing new to me.” He often has to take on a mindset he calls “survival mode.”

The son of immigrants who fled upheaval in their native El Salvador, Serrano said he endured racist bullying at Bowling Green High School, where classmates told him to “go back to Mexico.”

The neighborhood where his parents live is home to many immigrants and refugees who’ve fled persecution or a lack of opportunity in their home countries.

Bowling Green itself has become an unlikely home for thousands of refugees over the last 40 years due to the local International Center, a refugee resettlement agency.

A study the city conducted with the New American Economy found that in 2016, Warren County’s immigrant population was 11,274, out of 120,978 residents.

Serrano never anticipated three tornadoes ripping through his hometown. When the sun rose on the morning of Dec. 11, 2021, it revealed hundreds of destroyed homes and ruined city streets.

Sixteen people were among the dead, including a family of seven with children ranging in age from 16 to 4 years old.

Though he managed to reunite after the storm with Simba, a dog he’s had since he was 16, Serrano was re-traumatized by discrimination he experienced from relief providers. He said people saw him as “a Brown man and his brown dog.”

While visiting an American Red Cross shelter responding to the disaster, one woman demanded: “Show me your papers,” referring to his assistance dog.

When Serrano tried to explain he didn’t have those documents because he’d just lost everything he owned, Serrano said he was turned away by the woman, who threatened to call the police.

“It happened in multiple places,” Serrano said.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, requiring such documentation as a condition for entry is forbidden.

‘Liberation’

Serrano also said FEMA left him behind, holding up relief for his parents.

“We had just lost everything and help wasn’t coming,” Serrano wrote in additional remarks he shared with the Herald-Leader.

That relief didn’t come until October, after he visited Washington, D.C., to speak with key decision makers as part of an advocacy mission with Green Latinos, where Serrano works as a communications coordinator.

Serrano said FEMA only approved their claims after he personally met with Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, the senior director for environmental justice for White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Serrano’s parents are lawful permanent residents, which doesn’t rule out FEMA assistance.

He only recently felt like he’s started to make progress.

In October, Serrano was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which describes trauma that is ongoing, inescapable and relational, often involving a betrayal or loss of safety.

“Apparently, I’ve had this for a while now,” Serrano said, adding that what’s kept him going is his community and work to achieve “environmental liberation” with Green Latinos.

“They’re part of the reason that I’m still hanging on and fighting on,” Serrano said of Green Latinos.

For Serrano, environmental liberation as not simply having a seat at the table, but “leading the conversation.”

Serrano said he’s working on practicing more self care.

“From here, I continue surviving,” he said.

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