Obama declares major disaster for Kentucky

gkocher1@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2012 

  • Federal disaster funds

    Residents and business owners in Johnson, Kenton, Laurel, Lawrence, Menifee, Morgan, and Pendleton counties who suffered losses in last week's storms can begin applying for federal assistance Wednesday. Register online at DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362 (or 1-800-462-7585 for the hearing and speech impaired). The numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day until further notice.

WEST LIBERTY — President Obama issued a major disaster declaration for Kentucky on Tuesday night, triggering the release of federal funds to help people recover from the storms in the state last week.

The president's action makes federal funding available to businesses and residents in Johnson, Kenton, Laurel, Lawrence, Menifee, Morgan, and Pendleton counties. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.

More counties may be added later as damage assessments are completed. For example, Magoffin County suffered extensive damage throughout Salyersville on Friday.

Earlier Tuesday, residents and business owners re-entered the devastated Morgan County seat for the first time since Friday's deadly tornadoes.

West Liberty was crowded with utility crews restringing lines and working to restore power.

The American Red Cross shelter at Morgan Elementary School closed as families moved to the Assembly of God Church at 558 Ky. 519.

"We're moving now so that families have a better long-term shelter and so that the school can get back to doing what they do best: teaching our kids," said Terry Burkhart, chief executive of the American Red Cross — Bluegrass Chapter.

About 60 people are staying at the shelter, which will be open until each family has a safe place to stay.

Officials called a community meeting for 2 p.m. Wednesday at Morgan County High School to update residents about restoration efforts, said West Liberty City Council member Phyllis Keeton.

Vehicles must go through a checkpoint to enter the town, which has been cordoned off by Kentucky State Police since Saturday because so many buildings were unstable and so search-and-rescue teams could do their work.

Storm-damaged banks resumed business at remote locations, and they accepted deposits and cash withdrawals of as much as $500 a day, the state Department of Financial Institutions said.

Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. and Justice Will T. Scott inspected the century-old Morgan County Courthouse and a new justice center under construction.

Vance Mitchell of the state Administrative Office of the Courts said both buildings would probably be considered a total loss.

The old courthouse's clock tower was blown off and smashed to pieces, as was a World War I memorial on the lawn.

"We need to incorporate that old bell" in the rebuilt new justice center, Minton said as he watched a crane lift the bell out of the rubble.

Asked whether he had ever seen such devastation, Scott replied, "In Vietnam. Not in this country."

Morgan Circuit Court Clerk Donna Pelfrey said official records survived the storm, were secured Saturday and were moved to a building outside of town owned by Morehead State University. The building at 155 University Drive will be the county's temporary judicial center.

State Rep. John Will Stacy, D-West Liberty, said an estimated more than 3,500 structures are damaged, and most of those are a total loss.

The damage was left by a killer tornado that traveled at least 95 miles, including 60 miles through Kentucky and 35 miles into West Virginia, a National Weather Service meteorologist said Tuesday.

The National Weather Service office in Jackson confirmed the official path of the tornado that began in Menifee County and continued through Morgan and Lawrence counties into West Virginia.

The path might have extended an additional 5 to 10 miles into West Virginia, but that has not been confirmed, said Kevin Sullivan, a meteorologist with the weather service office in Jackson.

For a tornado to travel that far "is certainly unprecedented for this part of the country, in the Appalachian region," Sullivan said. "You just don't see those kind of long-lived super cells like that. "But out in the plains they happen a little more frequently. Out in our neck of the woods, you don't see tornado tracks like that."

At its fiercest, the storm was an EF3 tornado, with peak wind speeds estimated at 140 mph and a maximum width of a mile, according to the Web page of the Jackson office.

Land-line telephone service remained out in West Liberty, the Public Service Commission reported. Restoration of telephone service depends on replacement of destroyed Kentucky Power Inc. poles used by Mountain Telephone for its lines. Cellphone service had returned but in some cases was spotty.

Telephone service has been restored in most of Menifee and Wolfe counties, with the exception of the Frenchburg area, where reconstruction is required, the PSC said.

Volunteers who want to go to affected areas to help must register online at Kyem.ky.gov/recovery/Pages/VolunteerCoordination.aspx, said Army Spec. Katie De La Cruz of the Kentucky Emergency Operations Center in Frankfort.

"The people that want to volunteer, we want their help," she said. "However, we need them to go through the Web site." Unauthorized volunteers were asked to "avoid impacted areas because it could possibly interrupt whatever missions they have going on, and it's just not safe," De La Cruz said.

"Power lines are down, buildings are not stable. We have people who are trained in these specific situations, and they are doing their jobs. By having people who are not authorized in there, it inhibits those missions and it puts a damper on their safety."

In Frankfort, Stacy, the legislator from West Liberty, thanked the 100-member House and others who came to Morgan and Menifee counties' aid.

Stacy's home in West Liberty was spared, but many others in small communities in Menifee and Morgan counties were not, he said.

"There are probably 30 or 40 families homeless," Stacy said of Menifee County, which he also represents. Three people died in Menifee County, one of whom worked for Stacy at the Frenchburg Pharmacy. Six died in Morgan County. The statewide toll was 22.

"For approximately 21/2 miles, it devastated everything," Stacy said. "In this case, everything means everything. It demolished our hospital. It demolished our health department. It destroyed our existing courthouse. It destroyed our new courthouse that's under construction. It destroyed our county office building. It destroyed every restaurant. It destroyed every business. It destroyed every bank. It destroyed every home in that path.

"That community just no longer exists," Stacy said of West Liberty. "It is beyond your comprehension."

Reporters Beverly Fortune, Beth Musgrave and Jack Brammer contributed to this story.Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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