People Finding Photos, Other Items from Homes Miles Away After Tornadoes Hit 5 States

After tornados wreaked havoc across the midwest Friday night, people have been discovering belongings and heirlooms swept away by the natural disasters, sometimes more than 100 miles away.

The tornados leveled homes in Kentucky, partially collapsed an Amazon warehouse in Illinois and caused dozens of deaths across five states.

In a Facebook group created to help reunite lost possessions with their owners, people have been posting pictures of family photos, checks and even pets. Others are using the group, titled "Quad State Tornado Found Items," to inquire about their lost belongings and, in some cases, missing family members or loved ones.

Some people have also been using the group to offer aid to those affected by the tornados. One user said he had several RVs available for people whose homes were destroyed by the tornados, while some offered food and supplies or asked about sites where they could bring the materials.

Some of the posts have been updated to say when the owners of the lost items were successfully located, while others are still searching.

The fact that possessions were swept miles and miles away from their homes isn't all that strange, according to John Snow, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma. He cited one documented case from the 1920s where paper debris traveled 230 miles from the Missouri Bootheel to southern Illinois.

Paper debris can ride winds, sometimes traveling as high as 40,000 feet above the ground, he said.

"It gets swirled up," Snow said. "The storm dissipates and then everything flutters down to the ground."

Tornado Damage
After tornados wreaked havoc across the midwest Friday night, people have been discovering belongings and heirlooms swept away by the natural disasters, sometimes more than 100 miles away. This photo combo shows Katie Posten holding the front and back of a photograph she found stuck to her car's windshield on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021 in New Albany, Ind. Katie Posten via AP

When Katie Posten walked outside Saturday morning to her car parked in her driveway, she saw something that looked like a note or receipt stuck to the windshield.

She grabbed it and saw it was a black and white photo of a woman in a striped sundress and headscarf holding a little boy in her lap. On the back, written in cursive, it said, "Gertie Swatzell & J.D. Swatzell 1942." A few hours later, Posten would discover that the photo had made quite a journey - almost 130 miles (209 kilometers) on the back of monstrous winds.

Posten had been tracking the tornadoes that hit the middle of the U.S. Friday night. They came close to where she lives in New Albany, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. So she figured it must be debris from someone's damaged home.

"Seeing the date, I realized that was likely from a home hit by a tornado. How else is it going to be there?" Posten said in a phone interview Sunday morning. "It's not a receipt. It's well-kept photo."

So, doing what any 21st-century person would do, she posted an image of the photo on Facebook and Twitter and asked for help in finding its owners. She said she was hoping someone on social media would have a connection to the photo or share it with someone who had a connection.

Sure enough, that's what happened.

"A lot of people shared it on Facebook. Someone came across it who is friends with a man with the same last name, and they tagged him," said Posten, 30, who works for a tech company.

That man was Cole Swatzell, who commented that the photo belonged to family members in Dawson Springs, Kentucky, almost 130 miles (209 kilometers) away from New Albany, as the crow flies, and 167 miles (269 kilometers) away by car. Swatzell on Sunday didn't respond to a Facebook message seeking comment.

In Dawson Springs — a town of about 2,700 people 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of Paducah — homes were leveled, trees were splintered and search and rescue teams continued to scour the community for any survivors. Dozens of people across five states were killed.

The fact that the photo traveled almost 130 miles is "unusual but not that unusual," said Snow, the meteorology professor.

"It's really remarkable, definitely one of those things, given all that has happened, that makes you consider how valuable things are — memories, family heirlooms, and those kinds of things," Posten said. "It shows you the power of social media for good. It was encouraging that immediately there were tons of replies from people, looking up ancestry records, and saying 'I know someone who knows someone and I'd like to help.'"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Midwest Tornado Aftermath
Multiple tornadoes touched down in several Midwest states late evening December 10 causing widespread destruction and leaving more than 80 people dead. Residents continue to salvage belongings from destroyed homes after a tornado tore through a large section of the city late Friday evening on December 12, 2021 in Mayfield, Kentucky. Scott Olson/Getty Images