After a historic tornado rocked western Kentucky last December, a host of community banks banded together in the spirit of generosity, using their financial power to start relief funds and bolster rescue efforts for local victims.
By Paul Sisolak
Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, was like any other day for the people of Mayfield, Ky., many of whom were looking forward to celebrating the holidays.
Then, the winds began. A category EF4 tornado blighted the area for three hours, reaching 190 miles per hour. Afterwards, 77 people were confirmed dead, more than 500 were injured, 1,000 properties were destroyed and scores of area residents were displaced from their homes and jobs.
“We’re not thought of as ‘tornado alley’ around here, at least not before this,” says Stacy Overby, senior vice president of $535 million-asset First Kentucky Bank in Mayfield, Ky. “We’ve seen tornadoes destroy residential areas, but rarely do you get one that takes out a downtown like this one did.”
“We would have small groups that went out into the community and tried to help them with basic physical needs, picking up debris, taking meals to people in their homes. Then, [we just went] from door to door, knocking, to see if we could help with anything.”
—Stacy Overby, First Kentucky Bank
Mayfield and neighboring communities have since received nearly $49 million in federal relief to replace what was lost, in the form of FEMA relief and home and business loans from the Small Business Administration.
While the funding was welcome, it was community banks like Overby’s that first came to the aid of residents, fundraising and volunteering their time with the aim of rebuilding their community.
A beacon of light
The weekend after the tornado hit, community bank employees from across the region, from tellers up to the C-suite, answered the needs of the community in any way they could.
“After that first day, we gathered at the bank to figure out [how] to provide for our clients,” Overby says. “We would have small groups that went out into the community and tried to help them with basic physical needs, picking up debris, taking meals to people in their homes. Then, [we just went] from door to door, knocking, to see if we could help with anything.”
When outages affected the region, First Kentucky Bank used generators to restore ATM power so customers could access emergency cash.
At First Southern National Bank in Stanford, Ky., many staff members—one of whom lost their own house in the disaster—volunteered to help the fire department and rescue personnel at command posts established at a local elementary school, a convention center and churches to distribute rations and necessities.
“We try to be a lantern for the needs that we can meet and [try to] bring a little hope down the road,” says Lanie Gardner, community president of the $1 billion-asset community bank. “That’s what everyone wants to do: to make a tiny bit of difference, to help alleviate some fear, to help the cleanup so you know what you have.”
Community banks also helped their devastated communities with much-needed financial support.
FNB Bank, whose Mayfield headquarters saw extensive damage during the tornado, partnered with First Kentucky Bank, each committing $500,000 to assist downtown businesses, says Brooke Wiles, vice president and marketing director of the $653 million-asset community bank.
“We want to bring business back,” she says. “As if COVID times weren’t bad enough, you have a tornado. We want people to invest in us so you can invest back in your community.”
To maximize involvement, FNB Bank teamed up with Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati to create a home loan program where community members could receive up to $20,000 to rebuild or buy a home and cover closing costs.
FNB is also involved with Homes and Hope for Kentucky, Inc. and Mennonite Disaster Service, to which the community bank recently donated $10,000. The bank also opened a general fund anyone can donate to.
“It’s still growing leaps and bounds every day,” says Wiles.
A network of support
What humbles Overby is the international attention Kentucky received in the tornado’s aftermath—ranging from donations from good Samaritans far beyond the state’s borders to coverage by the BBC.
“The interest in the tornado resonated from all over the world,” he says. “People have sent supplies and money from all over the country. We’ve had individuals send in six figures to folks they didn’t even have a connection with. Then you see a package and you see a check for $20. It’s probably not a person of means, but they’ve seen the pictures on TV, and they’re just compelled to help.”
First Kentucky Bank continues to collect donations for the Mayfield Graves Tornado Relief Fund. “Banks have been in the spirit of helping each other,” says Overby, “where we want to do the best we can together to help Mayfield get back on its feet.”
The restoration of western Kentucky may take years, but community banks continue their commitment, whether on site or through relief funds and donations in kind. It’s ingrained in their cultures, notes Gardner.
“You want to help, and that’s what community is about,” she says. “Even if you take ‘banker’ out, that’s what community is about. You want to help first—and when you know that, it’s easier to do the things you want to do.”
Paul Sisolak is deputy editor of Independent Banker.