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Tornadoes hit Kentucky and these Linn County men responded

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A former Sweet Home High School graduate and a current Millersburg resident were part of a team that helped Kentucky residents recover from the devastation of tornadoes that tore through the region in December.

A month after the National Weather Service says 66 powerful tornadoes created a path of destruction through eight states, many are still working to clear their properties so they can start to rebuild. The Kentucky governor's office says at least 13 people died in Hopkins County. Those who survived have a long road to recovery, which includes rebuilding entire communities.SEE MORE: Newsy Investigates: OSHA Violations At Candle Factory Hit By TornadoHopkins County resident Billy Wells is retired and spends all of his time helping the community organize tear-downs, tree removals and helping media officials find residents with stories to share. He showed us several neighborhoods where all that remains is piles of debris. He says the homes that are still standing are scheduled to be torn down.Wells also helped crews clear a pathway so photographer Tandy Cook could get up the road to what's left of her property.Cook says she plans to rebuild her home but right now she's focused on gathering the small keepsakes that she lost when the tornado hit. Countless photos ended up in neighboring states, blown miles away by the power of the storms."Most of our pictures ended up in Elizabeth, Indiana, or as far as Louisville and La Grange," Cook said. "But I was very thankful to get all of those."

Will Chiaffino, 46, and Bill Blair, 71, were part of a Team Rubicon volunteer operation that mobilized hundreds of volunteers to assist local residents. Team Rubicon is an international non-government organization specializing in disaster response.

“After seeing images of the devastation there, I wanted to see if I could help out,” said Chiaffino, who helped man chainsaws that cut through debris and trees to help clear out the area and make neighborhoods habitable again.

“There are obviously a lot of hazards after tornadoes,” he said. “Large trees toppled over, broken and, you know, immediately behind neighborhoods. There were a lot of grateful people (and) we were there to assist them, make their properties safe.”

Other crews dug through debris in search of personal items, part of what’s called a “muck out” operation.

Blair was the incident commander, overseeing the organizational structure and deployment of personnel and resources. As someone who’s been involved in several Team Rubicon operations, he described the destruction in Kentucky as some of the more severe he’s seen.

“It was pretty devastating,” he said of the tornado damage. “It was a long tornado path. … I heard that it was a couple hundred miles that it tore through.”

The effort was coordinated out of a forward operating base in Perdonia, Kentucky. The operation was dubbed Unbridled Spirit, which saw hundreds of “grayshirts” — the nickname for the T-shirt-clad volunteers who work for Team Rubicon — in Western Kentucky to assist with the recovery efforts.

That military terminology is no accident, it reflects the history of the nonprofit.

Team Rubicon was co-founded in 2010 by former U.S. Marine Corps sniper Jake Wood, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he saw the devastation following the earthquake in Haiti, he decided to form a team to go and help out.

From that initial effort, Team Rubicon was born. Since then, the organization has been responsible for 785 field operations, ranging from natural disasters to even COVID-19 response, according to the organization’s website.

While it’s not a requirement to join, Team Rubicon is geared toward veterans and first responders. Both Blair and Chiaffino served in the armed forces before joining Team Rubicon.

Chiaffino was an air traffic controller for the Navy and Air Force, while Blair was in the Army from 1968 to 1972 and stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War.

Though, Blair stressed, all kinds of people join in on the volunteer operations.

“We are about 65% veterans and the rest are first responders, law enforcement and just regular civilians. … We call them ‘kick-ass civilians,’” Blair said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your skillset is, there is something for everybody to do who wants to be a part of Team Rubicon.”

While the nonprofit has made a name for itself by responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises — including assisting with the relocation of Afghan refugees last year — the organization also works locally. Blair estimated that there are around 600 grayshirts in the Pacific Northwest and even a branch in Salem, so local volunteers can quickly mobilize to help with things like COVID-19 vaccine distribution or other local events.

“We want to prepare that if things happened here, we’d be able to respond here before sending outside grayshirts in,” Blair said.

Both Chiaffino and Blair described their deployments with Team Rubicon as fulfilling and eye-opening.

“It’s the neatest organization that I’ve ever worked for and been involved in,” Blair said.

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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