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Kentucky school bus drivers are delivering tornado aid since classes are canceled

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In western Kentucky, many communities were affected by last week's tornadoes. Fifteen people died in Bowling Green, and the recovery will take some time. But that has not stopped school bus drivers from making the rounds to check on students and lend a helping hand. Lisa Autry of member station WKYU reports.

LISA AUTRY, BYLINE: Rhonda Stamper steered her Warren County school bus onto Moss Creek Court and could barely describe what she saw.

RHONDA STAMPER: Just gut-wrenching.

AUTRY: Stamper is a regular in this neighborhood, picking up children every morning and bringing them home in the afternoon. Now, some of those homes are gone.

STAMPER: It is hard. It's emotional. It's hard to believe the destruction.

AUTRY: Stamper and some of her fellow bus drivers fanned out through some of the neighborhoods to deliver food boxes to families who still have a place to call home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello, how are you? You have how many children?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Two.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two. How many adults?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Two.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two and two. Do you all have electricity, lights?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No lights. OK. OK.

AUTRY: Many are still without power and unable to cook food. Jasmine Wilson has two stepchildren, ages 15 and 17, and was grateful for the box of food.

JASMINE WILSON: It's really hard, especially when you don't have any means to, you know, heat it up or you just don't have a way to prepare it. So I mean, it's just a blessing that we got some perishable items for sure.

AUTRY: The bus drivers canvassed this neighborhood at midday after making an earlier breakfast run. They carried cardboard boxes with food and bottled water door to door.

STAMPER: Hi, girl. What are you doing?

AUTRY: One street over, Stamper was eager to be reunited with this girl and her sister, both elementary age. She hugs them and sighs in relief.

STAMPER: I'm so you're glad you're OK.

AUTRY: The students are just as excited to see a kind and familiar face in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. While the reunions are brief, it was enough just knowing most of these students along this route are safe. Warren County schools canceled classes for the week. And with Christmas break, these bus drivers won't see their students again until the new year. Not every bus driver is getting a reunion. Lana Spears has driven this route for three years. Some of the kids are like her own. She's in disbelief as she looks at what was the home of two students who hadn't been seen since the tornado.

LANA SPEARS: So a preschooler and a middle school child and their house is gone - just a pile of rubble.

AUTRY: Spears says she's been told the siblings are missing, along with their parents, and that an older child was found dead. She's really worried.

SPEARS: It's hard, I mean, because you see these children every day, a.m. and p.m., and you develop a relationship with them. And, you know, you know a lot about them.

AUTRY: Spears holds a picture of the preschooler - a 4-year-old boy in a peach-colored polo shirt with a wide grin. Hours later, the local coroner released the names of the people who died in the tornado. Among them was that 4-year-old, Nyles Brown, his sister and brother and their parents.

For NPR News, I'm Lisa Autry in Bowling Green, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lisa Autry
Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.