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Latino community in western Kentucky was hit especially hard by tornadoes

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The recovery effort continues in the parts of western Kentucky devastated by last weekend's powerful tornadoes. In the town of Mayfield, the Latino community was especially hard-hit and faces significant challenges, as NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Rafael Mercado (ph) is picking through his shredded belongings to see if anything is salvageable. The 28-year-old is glad he wasn't home when the ferocious tornado ripped apart his and every other house around him. Mercado, his wife and their young son are staying with friends for now. But as for what they'll do long term...

RAFAEL MERCADO: They say the government's going to want to help with something. So I don't know. We'll see what happen. It's not real sad because I'm alive and everybody's OK. But, I mean - we didn't have no insurance (laughter).

SCHAPER: You didn't have homeowners insurance?

MERCADO: No. No.

SCHAPER: That's a common problem in Mayfield, especially within the Latino community. 2019 census data show Latinos make up about 15% of the population here, but many believe Hispanics were undercounted. The figure is actually much higher, closer to a quarter of the population of Mayfield and growing. Jaime Masso is pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, the First Hispanic Baptist Church of Mayfield.

JAIME MASSO: People work everywhere. They work in the chicken plant, the candle factory and that's why we lost so many Hispanic homes over there - welding and we have a lot of electricians.

SCHAPER: Masso says the majority of his congregation is first-generation from Mexico and Guatemala. Many are low income and might not be aware of the services and government aid that's available. And because of all that, Masso worries that many Latinos here might not stay.

MASSO: I don't know how the economy of this town can survive if 25% of the people left.

SCHAPER: The inside of Masso's church looks more like a warehouse than a house of worship with rows upon rows of tables filled with canned food, bottled water, clothing, diapers and even toys to replace lost Christmas presents. There are more relief supplies piled up on the floor. As a power generator hums, these volunteers are picking up big Red Cross buckets filled with cleaning supplies while others grab tarps and other necessities, load it all onto trucks to be distributed to families in need. Thirty-six-year-old Lorena Godinez is normally the Spanish teacher at Mayfield High School. But now...

LORENA GODINEZ: I don't know what my job - well, my job is everywhere right now. I have done anything from, like, calling our families, primarily focusing on our Spanish speakers.

SCHAPER: And she's coordinating much of the distribution of these essential relief supplies, trying to figure out who needs what and where those in need are.

GODINEZ: There are some that have been totally displaced from their home, lost everything. You know, they just have the clothing they have on their backs.

SCHAPER: Godinez says some families here are undocumented and afraid. That's why volunteers are fanning out across the devastated city to reach storm victims in person.

GODINEZ: You know, we want them to know they're - we're not out to get your information or, you know, report them in any sort of way. But, you know, it's hard to trust just anyone, and when they see someone in a uniform, you know, it's hard on them.

SCHAPER: This whole situation is hard on everyone here, including these volunteers. Godinez says she feels called to serve her neighbors and her community but is ready for a break. She left her kids with her mother right after the tornado hit last Friday night and hasn't seen them since. David Schaper, NPR News, Mayfield, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF M83'S "MEET THE FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.