▶ Watch Video: Kentucky storm victims’ safe haven: Ms. Becky’s Place

Starting at 6 every morning, diners file into Ms. Becky’s Place, in Dawson Springs, Ky., to fill their stomachs and nourish their spirits with a home-cooked meal. If the lights are on, odds are Ms. Becky James is in. She answers the phone, takes the orders, and cooks and serves food made from scratch, just like her mother before her.

“My mother, she wasn’t a fancy cook, but she was a really good cook,” James told correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti. “I love cornbread and fried food. I’m a Southern girl at heart!”

“A Southern girl at heart” … and a steel magnolia in this Kentucky kitchen that’s helping keep her battered community on its feet.

Ms. Becky James takes orders at Ms. Becky’s Place. 

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On December 10, an unprecedented line of tornadoes tore through Kentucky and surrounding states, decimating town after town, including an estimated 75% of Dawson Springs.

Ms. Becky was home at the time, hiding with family and friends in her basement: “I just said, ‘Thank you, Lord, that you took care of all my family.’ We’re all safe. I wasn’t worried about the house or the rest of the stuff. When you come that close to death, you learn right away those things don’t matter.”

Her home sustained significant damage, but she got off easy. The tornado killed more than a dozen in town. FEMA says it will take months just to remove the debris.

At least 13 people in Dawson Springs were killed by the December 10 tornado. 

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And many are holding on by a thread, which is why James says she’s not going anywhere.

Vigliotti asked, “Ms. Becky’s Place has become a way to escape all of this?”

“Yes, everything is normal,” she said. “It’s like I’ve stepped back into my world when I go there.”

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It’s a home away from home – the kind of place where everyone’s known everyone else since childhood, a landmark since the ’70s, and these days there aren’t many of those (or anything else) left in Dawson Springs.

So, when the lights came on in Ms. Becky’s after weeks without power, it was like a beacon for all – and for waitress Debbie Hays, a lifeline: “I opened up for the first time since the tornado and it was the first time I had any normalcy to my life.”

Waitress Debbie Hays, welcoming a return to normalcy. 

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Now, they’re elbow-to-elbow with recovery crews from out-of-town. “They sit with people they’ve never seen and don’t know, and don’t care,” James said.

But on this day, the diner is filled with regulars. And it became clear this place is about something more. As James said, “If you feed somebody, you help them. You make them feel better. It’s a form of love.”

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Story produced by Amy Wall. Editor: Chad Cardin.