WEST LIBERTY — On Saturday morning, Merle Nickell did what he does most mornings: He took a walk near Old Mill Park.
Except things had changed radically since his last walk. The town was barely recognizable after a storm that residents called a tornado struck Friday rearranging the face of the Morgan County seat.
"There's so much destruction, it's just incomprehensible to me," said Nickell, 85.
Four people — three in the county and one in West Liberty — died as a result of the storm, Kentucky State Police Lt. David Jude said Saturday.
Kentucky State Police initially said that 75 people were injured in Morgan County. But Jude later said he didn't know how many people were injured. Nor did he know how many people in the city of 3,400 were displaced.
What was evident from a walking tour of the city was that the destruction is severe and widespread in the core of downtown, and along Riverside Drive and the valley along the Licking River.
Roofs were off many buildings, including Commercial Bank, City Hall and several churches and downtown shops. Faced with such overwhelming devastation, local optometrist Kent Nickell expressed what many people were feeling when he spoke about the damage to his office.
"You don't know what to do from this point on," said Nickell, who has been in business in West Liberty since 1983. "You don't know what your first step would be."
Residents expressed concern about whether some businesses will be able to recover from the disaster.
Asked whether he will rebuild, Roger Rose, owner of Fashion Furniture, couldn't say.
"I'm 67 years old," Rose said. "My business is starting its 38th year. The building is gone and all the furniture is gone. I don't know. I have some insurance. I probably don't have enough."
The town was eerily quiet Saturday because many residents had been taken to shelters in Elliott and Rowan counties, or to motels in Morehead, 20 miles north of West Liberty.
Families tried to find information about their loved ones, but communication was spotty. There was some concern about whether anyone was hurt at the local prison.
There was no damage or no injuries to any of the 1,700 inmates at Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, Warden Gary Beckstrom said.
Gov. Steve Beshear toured West Liberty on Saturday morning but did not meet with reporters. Kentucky State Police had the downtown cordoned off from reporters and everyone else so search-and-rescue teams could do their work. When state police conducted a tightly controlled walk through downtown, search dogs and their handlers were seen arriving.
The city sits in a bowl of tree-lined hills, and many people, including optometrist Kent Nickell, thought those hills would afford the city some natural protection from severe storms.
"It's one thing I never, ever believed would happen to West Liberty, because you think you're protected by the hills," Kent Nickell said.
Nature proved otherwise.
Rose, the furniture store owner, said he doesn't know what the future holds for the city.
"It'll be two or three years before this town comes back," Rose said.
Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.