Life slowly returning to normal in West Liberty

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2012 

WEST LIBERTY — Melissa Stacy walked into the Morgan County clerk's office Friday and transferred ownership of a 2000 Ford Explorer.

That wouldn't be a big deal in normal times, but times haven't been normal in West Liberty since a powerful tornado blasted through the county and city March 2.

The tornado killed six people and injured others in the county, but it also ripped a hole in the fabric of everyday life, destroying, damaging or disrupting businesses, government offices and schools.

Two weeks after the tornado, however, the town is working hard to recover, and services are being restored, residents said Friday.

Some businesses have reopened in their original locations after repairs, while others have found new spaces. One bank, for instance, set up shop in an old grocery store, local officials said.

The post office is in a mobile unit that looks like a concession stand in the parking lot at the IGA, and the health department is in an old bowling alley, according to a list provided by Irene Jenkins, the county emergency manager.

City offices and the police department are open in mobile homes in the parking lot behind the heavily damaged buildings where they used to be.

County offices are scattered among different locations, including the office of a coal company outside town that had closed. Some are in mobile homes, including the office of County Clerk Roger Williams, which reopened Thursday.

"There's a lot of progress," Stacy said.

Jim Ison, who drives through West Liberty frequently on his job as a quality-standards inspector for Kentucky Housing Corp., said he sees a steady decrease in the piles of bricks, splintered wood and other debris.

"We're getting better every day," Ison said.

The county will mark another recovery milestone Monday when school resumes for the first time since the tornado. One elementary school will be in a former manufacturing facility, Superintendent Deatrah Barnett said.

Things are on track to resume normal operations, Barnett said — "At least, our new normal."

Bina Adkins, who works at Commercial Bank, said the bank had never had a branch before the tornado.

Now, it has employees at the county library and in a mobile home, and is renovating the former Dairy Cheer restaurant to house loan officers, she said.

"We're just all over the place," Adkins said.

West Liberty, a town of 3,200, was abuzz with activity Friday, with people working on damaged buildings and clearing debris.

Jim Gazay, incident commander for the county, said he had worked disasters in other places and was impressed with the progress on recovering from the storm after just two weeks.

"I've never seen nothing near this fast," he said.

Still, it's clear that with the amount of damage, recovery and rebuilding will be a long process.

Storms that hit the county Feb. 29 and March 2 destroyed 299 residences, 74 businesses and 19 government offices, caused major damage to 162 other buildings and inflicted at least some damage to hundreds more, Gazay said

The March 2 tornado was so fierce it toppled granite headstones in Salyers Cemetery.

There is still a curfew after dark, not only to discourage looting but to keep people out of unsafe areas.

Electricity and phone service have been restored to all the places where it can be, Gazay said, but residents said there still is no cable television.

Williams, the county clerk, said sheriff's deputies are providing services, but the sheriff's office hasn't reopened, so people can't pay their property taxes.

Traffic signals haven't been rebuilt. Traffic was at a crawl downtown Friday as people took their turns at a four-way stop sign.

"It's going to be a long time before they get everything going," said Donnie McKenzie, who operated a local landmark, McKenzie's Pool and Lunch, for decades before it was destroyed by the tornado. Like others, however, McKenzie said he wants to reopen his business, which was known for its fish sandwiches.

Phyllis Landrum said she'll reopen her beauty shop. It was damaged in the Feb. 29 storm, and she was at another business to check on renting space to reopen when the March 2 tornado hit.

The building was damaged, but she and others rode out the storm in a bathroom or a walk-in cooler.

Like other residents, she seemed to be taking things in stride.

"It's not that bad," she said. "Everybody is very helpful."

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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