One month after tornadoes, Kentucky counties are struggling to recover

gkocher1@herald-leader.comApril 2, 2012 

  • Offerings of help

    Children raised money, knitters assembled afghans, college students picked up debris. Help has come to the tornado-stricken area around West Liberty from many places and from many people. Read more about it in Life + Neighbors.

  • Musical Samaritans

    Local producers and musicians created a song to generate aid for tornado victims. Merlene Davis, Page C1

    Piner: Most residents of Kenton County town plan to stay and rebuild. Page A5.

It was only a month ago that an outbreak of tornadoes barreled through Kentucky and killed 24 people.

Only a month, but sometimes, for Laurel County Judge-Executive David Westerfield, it seems as if more like six months have passed.

So much has happened on the way to recovery, and so much more remains to be done, Westerfield said.

"We're probably 95 percent done with our cleanup," Westerfield said Monday. "People are starting to move mobile homes in and starting to rebuild homes. It's just amazing, the volunteers we've had. People are just anxious to get back and try to rebuild their lives.

"But it will never be the same, we know, because of the damage and the fatalities we had. But people are starting that cycle to try to rebuild."

More than $10.1 million has been approved for survivors of the recent severe storms, tornadoes and straight-line winds that happened Feb. 29 through March 2, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported Friday.

That includes more than $5.7 million approved for housing assistance, including short-term rental assistance and home repair costs. An additional $3 million in low-interest disaster loans has been approved by the Small Business Administration.

And more than $1.4 million has been approved to cover other essential disaster-related needs, such as medical and dental expenses and lost personal possessions, FEMA said.

About 4,800 storm survivors in 21 counties have contacted FEMA for help or information regarding disaster assistance.

More than 2,200 homes were damaged. Of those, 650 were destroyed.

In Magoffin County alone, 253 homes suffered some damage, and 79 were destroyed, said Mike Wilson, deputy judge-executive. Those whose homes were destroyed were taken in by friends or family. Fortunately, there were no deaths in Magoffin.

"If this tornado had taken an eighth of a mile turn, we have a nursing home that has approximately 150 residents in it," Wilson said. "And if it had gone a different route, we would have lost a lot of lives."

Disaster recovery centers remain open in Morgan and Magoffin counties. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, is scheduled to meet with local officials Tuesday in the tornado-stricken communities of Salyersville in Magoffin, West Liberty in Morgan County, and East Bernstadt in Laurel County.

Officials expressed appreciation for the outpouring of donations in time and money. For example, Southland Christian Church in Jessamine County donated $20,000 in gift certificates for Menifee County residents to use to rebuild their lives, Judge-Executive James "J.D." Trimble said.

"That brought tears to my eyes. It was an answer to prayers," Trimble said.

The gift certificates will be "prorated" and distributed in a manner so that those who lost more will receive more, Trimble said. A committee is in charge of deciding how such assistance is allocated.

Approximately 80 to 100 structures were damaged in the county, and perhaps 20 houses and mobile homes were total losses, Trimble said.

In addition, many trees were felled in the area of Broke Leg Falls, a 14-acre park along Ky. 460 owned by Menifee County.

"Broke Leg Falls will never be the same in my lifetime," Trimble said. He has talked with forestry officials about planting seedlings in the area.

In hard-hit Morgan County, where six people died and the county seat of West Liberty was virtually erased from the map, there are signs of resurrection as Easter Sunday approaches.

"There have been new mobile homes put in in places where some got wiped out," Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley said. "This weekend we're having our annual Kiwanis Club pancake flip and Easter egg hunt."

The pancake breakfast was moved from its normal site, West Liberty Christian Church, which was destroyed, to Old Mill Park, not far from a part of downtown that was severely damaged.

"I can't say enough for our city and county," Conley said.

"The analogy I used earlier today, it's just like playing a game of football," Conley said. "When you start taking off down the field with the football, the whole team moves in the same direction. And that's what happened here: The whole team — whether you're a volunteer, a community leader, a government agency, a business owner — it seems like we're all carrying the ball in the same direction."

Westerfield, the Laurel County judge-executive, said 2,200 dump-truck loads of debris have been moved. Building debris went to a landfill, and trees were taken to a burn site.

Westerfield said it was crucial to get as much cleanup work done as possible in the first two weeks after the storms.

"Because after the second week, there's something else on the news and people are focusing on something else," Westerfield said. "Most of these people that were affected, they didn't have the monetary resources to pay someone to drag this debris to the county right away, or they're not physically fit to do it themselves. That's why I stressed to all these people to use these volunteers while we had them, because after that second week, they started dropping off."

Sixty-four homes in Laurel County were destroyed, Westerfield said. In all, 315 houses suffered some sort of damage, ranging in severity from minor damage that will take 30 days to repair, to major damage that could take 90 days of repair, to destroyed, Westerfield said.

What's been helpful is that local companies and contractors donated equipment to help in the cleanup.

"Any of the companies we called on, we were never told no," Westerfield said. "It was 'We're there. Where do you want us? When do you want us?' We had five surrounding counties that sent their county road departments in to help us. It's just been awesome."

The word "resiliency" came up several times in interviews Monday with officials.

Wilson, the Magoffin County deputy judge-executive, used it this way:

"The people of Magoffin have a resiliency. I think that's what's pulled us through," he said. "Everybody has come together as one, the church organizations, the volunteer groups, not to mention all the city and county working together as one has made the biggest difference.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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