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Some call this Kentucky town the ‘Heart of America.’ Now its international community is picking up the pieces after a deadly tornado

<i>Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</i><br/>An aerial view of damaged houses in Bowling Green
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
An aerial view of damaged houses in Bowling Green

By Nick Valencia, Jade Gordon and Christina Maxouris, CNN

When Leyda Becker heard a weather alert on her phone in the early morning hours of December 11, she wasn’t surprised. Tornado alerts in Bowling Green are not uncommon and often don’t amount to much.

But along with her husband and two children, she took shelter in the closet. Shortly after 2 a.m, the fierce winds quieted down. Becker took a peek outside, but in the pitch dark she couldn’t see anything and went back to sleep.

It wasn’t until several hours later that daylight revealed the devastation the deadly twister left in its wake.

“One street behind us, the top of almost every home was taken off. We were very close,” she said. But Becker considers herself one of the lucky ones.

At least fifteen people died in Warren County, Kentucky, as a result of the tornado. A 16th person, a 67-year-old man, died after suffering cardiac arrest during storm cleanup, according to the county coroner. At least eight of the victims were children.

Most of the people who lost their lives were in the county seat of Bowling Green, a vibrant, close-knit community where residents take pride in announcing it was recently named among America’s top places to live by Money Magazine. It’s home to immigrants and refugees from across the world, including Bosnians who fled the war in the 1990s, and people from Myanmar and El Salvador.

Most recently, Bowling Green welcomed more than 190 Afghans, according to Becker, who serves as the city’s international communities liaison and is herself an immigrant from Venezuela.

“We have just from about every continent except Antarctica,” Becker told CNN. “I’ve met somebody from everywhere here, in a small town in south-central Kentucky.”

As the community now rallies around those who lost family members and loved ones, and whose homes were leveled by the brutal winds, those who survived are still in shock but consider themselves lucky. And they say they’re eager to help rebuild the city and its spirit.

Two families killed in one neighborhood

Most of the tornado’s victims in Bowling Green lived in the Moss Meadows neighborhood. It’s home to families from Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, China, Japan and others born and raised in Kentucky. About 20 houses were destroyed, homeowners association president Jason Nichols told CNN.

Two families in the neighborhood, who lived just a few doors apart on Moss Creek Avenue, were killed. Rachael and Steven Brown were with their four children — Nariah Cayshelle, 16, Nolynn, 8, Nyles, 4, and Nyssa, 13 — and Rachael’s mother, Victoria Smith, when the tornado ripped through their home. All seven were killed.

“They were very family-oriented,” Rachael Brown’s aunt, Dornicho Jackson McGee, told CNN. The family had moved from Madisonville, Kentucky, two years ago for a job opportunity, McGee said. “They loved their family. They loved their kids.”

Down the street, five people of the Besic family, who had emigrated from Bosnia, were found near their home in the aftermath of the tornado. Among those killed in the family were two infant girls, police said. Police identified the victims as Alisa Besic, an adult female, Selmir, a juvenile male, Elma, a juvenile female, and Samantha and Alma, the two infants.

“It’s devastating,” Bowling Green police spokesperson Ronnie Ward told CNN. “It’s hard to understand and comprehend how that happened.”

Erdin Zukic, whose parents left Bosnia and now run a trucking business in Bowling Green, said thousands of people from Bosnia call the city home. Between 2011 and 2016, the county’s immigrant population grew by more than 85%, according to a study. Nearly 15% of the county’s immigrant population then was from Bosnia.

“It’s kind of like the heart of America,” Zukic said of Bowling Green. “America was founded on the ideals that everybody is born equal and everybody deserves the opportunity to the pursuit of happiness, and Bowling Green really embodies that.”

Down the street from the Brown and the Besic families, Concepción Serrano’s home was wiped away. He thanked God he was alive.

The 51-year-old from El Salvador hid in a closet and got out with only a few scratches on his legs — after debris fell on top of him. All night after the storm, he could hear people screaming and yelling, he told CNN. He got out and began to help, pulling a young child who was trapped under rubble to safety.

As he talked to CNN, Serrano pointed to people’s homes that were leveled, and to neighbors who were killed.

A day after the storm, Becker called friends and community members to check on them. A local leader of the Quranic community, an ethnic group from Myanmar, was at a local hospital interpreting for a family who had suffered a casualty. A local Congolese leader, the father of six children, told her his home had been reduced to wood scraps.

“Their lives were spared, but they don’t have a home anymore,” Becker said.

‘Mom, I’m about to die’

In another part of Bowling Green, Zukic found out that a high school friend lost his 27-year-old brother, Cory Scott, in the storm.

Cole Scott told CNN his brother was killed while he was sleeping in his home.

“The story of what happened gave me peace,” he told CNN. He said a neighbor informed him the tornado took the home in a blink of an eye. “Initially, I wondered if he was scared or hurt, or if someone got there sooner, would he be okay? But I knew it happened so fast he didn’t feel a thing.”

His brother had an infectious laugh, he said.

“He was always there for me. We did everything together,” he said.

Across the city, it’s hard to miss the devastation, residents say.

The home of Bowling Green resident Mevludin “Mesa” Arnaut, 67, was partially wiped out as the tornado sped through. His kitchen roof was ripped off, but the damage was little compared to others, he said.

In another part of town, Chelcie Belcher is raising money through a GoFundMe for her brother, a single father of a 6-year-old daughter and a 7-year old son who lost his home.

“I’m just thinking, what do we do now?” she said, adding that she’s thankful everyone in her family is alive and safe. “I cry, because, what if it was me? What if that was my family?

Crying in front of her destroyed home in another part of the city, Latonya Webb told CNN last week she watched people around her die on the night of the tornado.

“There were so many people crying for help, I could hear people praying and I could hear people saying, ‘Lord, help us,'” she said. “Before I lost connection, I was on the phone with my mother and I said, ‘Mom, I’m about to die.'”

The challenges with moving forward

Despite the losses suffered, a sense of resilience and community permeates the city.

Local donation centers that were set up have overflowed with food and clothing, some residents told CNN. Neighbors are helping each other salvage what’s left. Others are offering each other meals.

“It’s been an explosion of support,” Zukic said. “I just know that when we come back, we’re going to come back stronger and the community is only going to blossom from here.”

In such a diverse community, one challenge in getting affected residents the help they need has been the language barrier, Ward, with the police department, told CNN.

“Communication is a problem,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is spread the word, ‘this is where you can get help, here’s what kind of help is going to be offered,’ and just general information on how you can get through.”

Becker, who in the past week has been communicating with the different populations of the city, said many are concerned about whether something like this will happen again.

Many have asked her if they’re safe, and if a tornado is likely to strike again, she said.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead,” she said. “But, you know, Bowling Green is an amazing place. Hopefully, we’re going to come out of this stronger and with a lot of lessons learned, and we’ll rebuild and we will make sure that everybody’s taken care of.”

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CNN’s Caroll Alvarado and Jenn Selva contributed to this report.

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