The building where Derek Englert’s daughter Sylvie once played indoor soccer still stands.
Not much else in Mayfield, Kentucky, does anymore.
The EF-4 tornado that ripped through the Western Kentucky city on Dec. 10 made sure of that. The violent storm was on the ground for more than 150 miles. It destroyed much of downtown Mayfield and caused significant damage to several other nearby towns. It killed dozens of people, becoming the deadliest single tornado since the one that hit Joplin, Missouri, in 2011.
And it’s how, barely a week later, Englert found himself back where he and his wife Shannon once cheered on Sylvie and her teammates, the turf strewn with supplies and the goals going unused.
The West Point resident spent four days assisting with relief efforts in Mayfield and the surrounding areas. Englert hauled a trailer full of goods up to Kentucky on Dec. 18, spent five hours sorting goods on two separate days and shopped for necessary supplies for those displaced by the storm.
“It was really good to get in there and help,” Englert said.
Englert, a financial adviser at Edward Jones in Columbus, moved to Mississippi in April 2021, three months after the rest of his family came down. He grew up between Paducah and Benton, Kentucky, less than 10 miles from where the tornado tore up trees and buildings. The storm missed Englert’s grandparents by three miles, but his sister avoided it by just one mile. Winds associated with the storm system damaged the property she had just moved to, which lacked a storm shelter.
Englert’s family escaped serious harm, but many weren’t so lucky. Seventy-six people across Kentucky died in the tornado, which tracked 165.65 miles with a peak wind speed of 190 miles per hour.
“This one was a completely different animal,” Englert said. “You don’t normally get one that stays on the ground for as long as it did.”
‘It looked like a war zone’
With thousands of buildings damaged and residents displaced, Englert knew he wanted to pitch in. Already planning to head home for Christmas, he posted on Facebook on Dec. 15, asking for suggestions of what to bring.
Commenters gave him a list, including gas cans, batteries, towels and water. Figuring others might want to help, Englert solicited donations by posting on the Facebook pages for West Point and for Houston, Mississippi, where he is a member of the Exchange Club.
The next afternoon, he stopped by the West Point-Clay County Community Growth Alliance office to see what had been dropped off. The scale of the donations stunned him.
“I was going, ‘Oh, this is going to be bigger than I thought,’” Englert said.
Instead of hauling everything in the bed of his truck, he rented a 6-by-12-foot U-Haul trailer Dec. 17 in Vernon, Alabama. The Ole Miss alum picked up donations in Oxford on his way up the next day in addition to a stop in Houston to get everything together.
Driving into Mayfield, Englert and his family witnessed total destruction, even eight days after the storm. The shells of houses greeted them. Downed power lines were everywhere. The cute county courthouse lost its clock tower and most of its roof.
The city Englert remembered as “a nice town” was unrecognizable.
“It looked like a war zone,” he said. “It wasn’t anything like you would remember.”
He and his wife unloaded their cargo — eight pallets full — at the relief distribution center set up at the Mayfield-Graves County Fairgrounds before Shannon and their four children headed out for the night. Englert spent the next five hours sorting supplies in the building where Sylvie’s soccer games once took place.
There were hundreds of volunteers in the area, including roughly 20 helping to sort. When he returned three days later, the number of sorters had more than doubled. Englert met people from Alaska and a woman from Seattle who packed her car full of necessary items and hit the road, sleeping in the vehicle with no hotels available.
“They were there volunteering, helping out, not expecting anything in return just helping because these people were hurting,” he said. “So it was really amazing.”
‘What else do you need?’
On Dec. 19 and 20, in between his two days sorting supplies, Englert hit the road.
He went as far as Paducah, some 40 minutes north, to buy things displaced residents would need. With generators and propane heaters given out, Englert bought all 30 of the carbon monoxide detectors for sale at the local Walmart to ensure safety with the devices. He emptied the shelves of laundry detergent so residents could wash clothes dirtied in the rubble. He bought moving blankets for warmth and purchased ratchet straps at Harbor Freight.
“My thing was, ‘What can I bring and help you guys out that you can’t get?’” Englert said. “And then it became, ‘OK, I can bring those things. What else do you need?’”
All told, Englert and his family spent roughly $400 of their own money on supplies, including the U-Haul. His fellow West Point residents showed similar generosity, as did at least one local business: Southern Ionics sent Englert along with $50 Walmart gift cards to distribute. Relief organizers instructed Englert to keep half of them for his shopping sprees and hand out the rest for those in need.
Englert said his motivation for helping out was simple: He was going that way, and there were people who needed help. Already, he’s planning another trip to Kentucky in the spring if he can swing it with work and his children’s schooling.
He urged others to donate, saying a number of places are still accepting goods for those displaced by the storm. In the absence of government relief money that has yet to come in, they’ll need “long-term help” to get back on their feet.
“They’re still relying on what they have and what people are donating to get by,” Englert said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.