The tornadoes that came roaring through the Midwest and the South last Friday evening were part of a storm of epic proportions, and one of the most deadly tornado outbreaks of the modern era. In just Graves County, Kentucky, where the city of Mayfield lies, 21 people have been declared dead, with many more still missing. While this breathtaking storm was certainly a natural phenomenon, scholars have for decades pointed out that there is no such thing as a ‘natural disaster,’ and deaths resulting from natural phenomena are almost always attributable to human choices. While hazards may be natural, disasters are man-made.
These human choices could be made by individuals, or they could be made by governments (and, certainly, governmental decisions around climate change are tied to dramatic tornado outbreaks), but in the case of Friday’s tornado, many of the choices that caused the disaster were made by corporations. Workers were killed on the clock during this storm—six in an Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville, Illinois; and in a candle-making factory with the dystopian name Mayfield Consumer Products (MCP), in Mayfield, eight workers were killed. Many of the choices that preceded these deaths were made by their employers. In both locations, workers specifically claim that they were not permitted to leave the floor and were expected to continue working.
In Mayfield, the decision to continue factory operations was made despite ample warning about the threats to the town. The timeline laid out by The Courier Journal shows specifically how much prior warning of large and dangerous storms was available to the Mayfield area. The National Weather Service was disseminating credible information about deadly storms in the area almost 12 hours in advance. The warnings continued with increasing direness and specificity throughout the day, with nine bulletins issued prior to the tornado striking Mayfield at 9:27PM.
“I have to say, we were prepared, our local news crew kept us informed from the get go. We knew storms were coming and they made it clear that these storms did not happen often,” said Crystal Fox, president of Mayfield’s Minority Enrichment Center, whose home was damaged during the storm. “I think everybody took it serious, that’s why the casualties are not as high as it could have been… We knew to hunker down and people were dismissing schools… early and canceling activities that were supposed to happen.”
However, despite these warnings, MCP, which supplies candles to places like Bath & Body Works and Febreeze, remained open. MCP has a long history of troubling labor practices. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the company has previously been sued for discriminatory actions against their employees and had been involved heavily in recruiting workers from Puerto Rico under false or abusive pretenses. MCP also had a reported injury rate of 4.2 injuries for every 100 employees, 1.4 times higher than similar businesses. OSHA had fined the company $16,350 for a variety of infractions, including serious safety violations.
The factory had also recently started a program where inmates from the Graves County jail were being used on the factory floor. The jail would not disclose how much money the inmates made under this arrangement, but the county did receive a portion of their income. Seven inmates working through this program were present when the tornado hit the factory; they all survived, but the deputy supervising them was killed. Inmates from the neighboring Calloway County jail had a similar work program with MCP; however, they have not disclosed if any of their inmates were working at the time of the tornado.
On the night of the storm, some workers allege that for hours leading up to the tornado touching down they begged managers for permission to go home, only to be denied and threatened with termination. The factory, in order to deal with extra orders around the holidays, had been offering bonuses to employees who worked extra hours. Jessica Sanchez-Flores, a worker at the plant, told The Courier Journal that “They [MCP] knew it was heading toward us. By the time they told us to go back to work, they should have said, ‘Hey, this might be coming straight toward us. Go home.’ They should have sent us home.”
Lexington lawyer William Davis, who is representing employees of the factory, told The Courier Journal that the situation that night was like “a modern-day sweatshop.” The Kentucky Division of Occupational Health and Safety has already launched an investigation into these allegations. The employees who did stay at the factory were hit with the full force of the tornado. Those who survived described a scene of horror as the building was directly hit, with some people being sucked up into the air and others being buried under the rubble of the building. Survivors were rushed to area hospitals where they were treated for, among other things, chemical burns and crush injuries.
Former State Rep. Charles Booker, who is currently running for the Senate seat occupied by Rand Paul and has halted his planned campaign activities to focus on relief efforts, told TRNN, “The news about Mayfield Consumer Products safety conditions and treatment of employees is harrowing and deeply painful. It reinforces the fact that regular people are often disregarded as expendable, all in the name of profits. This is true across our country, and has only been exacerbated by politicians like Rand Paul in a period I have been calling the Great Exploitation.”
Mayfield, Kentucky, is a town of about 10,000 residents, close to the Missouri, Tennessee, and Illinois borders in western Kentucky. “Mayfield is a small knit community, less than 10,000 people, so everybody knows each other, so it’s more like a family community, if you know somebody, they know somebody,” said Fox. “Friday nights are football, that’s what we do. I have four kids centered around school, cheerleaders and football. But more than anything they are friends and family, that’s what Mayfield is.”
Mayfield, as former resident Lee Cole wrote in Time Magazine, had become a purveyor of small town nostalgia and “a living symbol for a past that was fast fading.” Mayfield’s identity as a community that was primarily defined by agriculture shifted in the 1960s as industries began to open factories near Mayfield. While these jobs started off offering good pay and union benefits, many of these plants closed, and plants like MCP, which was not unionized and had a starting pay of $8 an hour, replaced them.
“In our community, that’s the factory,” said Fox about MCP. “We are a very poverty-stricken city, as much as we love each other and support each other… There are a lot of people that are not meeting the median for income, so we are below the poverty level, most families. They have to work at those jobs, in factories and restaurants and things.”
Mayfield also is a community that has a diverse and changing population. Fox founded the Minority Enrichment Center after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with the challenges that minority students were facing in school. According to Fox, the school system had shifted from serving a majority-white population to a system with more Black and Hispanic students in the past few years. “Minority kids were graduating but they weren’t ready to go to work or the next level of education,” said Fox, “That means more poverty, we are going to create a cycle. So that’s why the minority center was started, so we can start bridging some of those gaps, so we can figure out why, provide resources, and work with the families one on one.”
After the storm, many people complained online about how Kentuckians brought this disaster upon themselves by voting for representatives like Paul and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. However, painting Kentuckians with such a broad brush ignores the complexities in a town like Mayfield, where the most impacted individuals were also the ones most likely to face voter suppression. “The tornado, the neighborhood that it hit is [a] mostly minority neighborhood,” said Fox. “The homes that sustained overall the most damage ripped through those places where there was already an issue with poverty and people not having the resources they needed for daily life.”
Booker, who describes his campaign as “a testament to the forgotten people, communities like my own who have been ignored and abandoned for so long,” also highlighted that many of the people who were impacted by the storm were also struggling prior to the storm. He points out that Paul, who has come under fire for voting against disaster relief and yet is requesting assistance after this storm, has long ignored communities like Mayfield in Kentucky. “Sadly, Rand Paul doesn’t believe our government should do anything but give handouts to corporations and his ultra wealthy friends,” said Booker. “Through his entire time in office, he has consistently voted against disaster relief… His sharp pivot now just shows his hypocrisy, and is a desperate attempt to hide his shameful record.”
Jacob Remes, a clinical assistant professor of history at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, explained after Hurricane Maria that the kind of societal divisions that Booker talks about are the reasons why disasters occur. “Disasters usually replicate whatever cleavages, inequalities, exclusions existed in a society before. That’s because people who are excluded are made more vulnerable,” he said. “But it’s also because disaster response is political, and so it replicates political distinctions.”
Fox, who is helping with relief efforts, has drawn strength from the solidarity that she has received from individuals around the country, including Operation Barbecue, which has provided hot meals to residents. She hopes that resources and relief will flow to the storm victims in the weeks and months to come as the true cost of the disaster is revealed. “Mayfield is resilient, we’ve bounced back from a lot of things,” said Fox.