County office building reopening provides milestone in Morgan County's tornado recovery

jwarren@herald-leader.comJune 13, 2012 

WEST LIBERTY — Steve Stoltzfus moved here about 35 years ago after falling in love with and marrying a local girl, and he soon fell in love with the community, too.

"This is a great place to raise a family; it's small town living at its best," Stoltzfus said Wednesday, taking a break from making repairs on the bleachers at Morgan County High School's football field. That's why it's particularly gratifying seeing the community bouncing back from the devastation of the deadly March 2 tornado, he said.

"There's a long way to go, but we're getting there," he said.

A few feet from where Stoltzfus was talking, Morgan County officials marked another milestone in this community's recovery Wednesday: the official reopening of the Morgan County Office Building, which was severely damaged in the storm. The county judge-executive's office moved back into the repaired building a week or so ago; Wednesday was the first day back for the county sheriff's office, the county clerk, and the PVA's office.

"We are open for business," Morgan Judge-Executive Tim Conley declared as he joined other officials in cutting a ribbon to reopen the building.

County offices had been operating in a variety of locations, from trailers to a tent, while the office building was being repaired.

Meanwhile, just down Prestonsburg Street, there was more sign of returning life Wednesday as staffers moved files and supplies back into the West Liberty Municipal Building, also heavily damaged in the storm. They said one part of the building could be back in operation as early as Friday, although the other section will require lengthier repairs.

Officials said Tuesday marked the passage of 100 days since the tornado that killed six people and wrecked much of downtown West Liberty. Recovery from the storm moves slowly in some cases, but every day produces some progress, they said.

"We are so pleased and proud that we are getting this building opened back up," Conley told onlookers as the county building reopened. "I know it has been stressful ... but we don't quit, we don't give up."

The county's residents have received help from numerous volunteers, and are united in their determination to restore their community, local officials said.

"There's not one place in this county that you can drive across now without seeing someone out working on a building, or doing something to put lives back together," Conley said.

The Morgan County Office Building is both symbolic of what has been accomplished and of how much is left to do.

A handful of people actually waited out the tornado in a shelter inside the building. But it sustained major roof damage, and most of the rear section was wrecked.

The building is a major piece of community history. It was built — at a cost of $125,000 in the middle of the Great Depression — to serve as Morgan County's new high school. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, attended the building's dedication on May 24, 1937. The high school closed in 1989, and the building was home to county offices since it was refurbished with a $1 million grant in the early 1990s.

Conley estimated Wednesday that more than $1 million has been spent on repairs since the storm so that county offices could move back in. Even so, he said, most of the building remains unusable, and fully restoring it probably will take 18 to 24 months and an additional $6 million or more. Work probably will begin in late summer or early fall.

Meanwhile, many others here still have much to do.

Steve Stoltzfus said one of his neighbors has been living in a small camper since the man's home was destroyed by the March twister. The man and his wife now face the prospect of living in the cramped trailer, parked on the concrete slab where their house used to be, until a new home is built.

"Houses can be built back," Stoltzfus said. "But it breaks my heart that West Liberty lost two beautiful old churches that had been here as long as anybody can remember. They were part of the fabric of this community for generations. You really can't build that back."

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255.Twitter: @heraldleader

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