SALYERSVILLE — Surrounded by rolling hills and uprooted trees, Herald Whitaker Middle School is still standing, but residents say it is in worse condition today than the morning after an EF3 tornado struck a year ago.
The roof of the two-story building is mostly gone. Doors and windows are boarded up with sheets of plywood. And pieces of brick and gutters continue to fall off as construction of a new school is delayed because of a dispute between the county's board of education and the building's insurers.
"It's sad," said Paula Elam, a salon owner whose daughter is in eighth grade. "Every time you look at it, you can see it running down a little more."
On March 2, 2012, when a bizarre weather front spawned multiple tornadoes in Kentucky, one of the most powerful twisters carved a path through Salyersville, hitting first the campus that contains four of the county's six public schools. It continued along the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway, damaging or destroying dozens of homes and businesses.
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Residents, thankful that no one died, quickly banded together to clean up the mess, but the town has yet to return to normal. The economy is in a slump caused by the sudden loss of 14 businesses, a record number of people are unemployed, and students from damaged schools have not been allowed to return to their familiar classrooms, officials said.
From the rubble, a few bright spots have emerged. Two of the destroyed businesses — Subway and Advance Auto Parts — recently reopened, signifying a small return to normal.
Residents look for whatever they can to take their minds off the devastation. High school sports teams have become valuable distractions, especially the Magoffin County High School girls basketball team. The Lady Hornets' back-to-back district titles have been a point of pride in the community.
"That's a big thing for us, to go up and watch the girls play," Elam said as she swept the floor in her small salon after clipping a young man's hair.
There are reminders of the twister throughout the city.
Herald Whitaker Middle School is one of the few damaged buildings left standing. Homes and businesses gutted by the twister have been demolished and removed, leaving behind bare plots of land.
The cash-strapped school district can't afford the $200,000 to $300,000 it would cost to demolish the uninhabitable school, Superintendent Stan Holbrook said. The school board hoped to have started construction of a new school at a different site by now.
"The idea was to build on a new campus, so if we have another tornado, they aren't all hit at the same time," he said. If the insurer "would have settled with us in a timely fashion, we already would have a school started."
The twister that hit Sal yersville didn't grab headlines like the one that wiped out downtown West Liberty earlier in the day, but it was more powerful. Each was classified as EF3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which rates the strength of tornadoes. But wind speeds in Salyersville were as high as 160 mph, 20 mph faster than recorded winds in West Liberty, said WKYT chief meteorologist Chris Bailey, a Salyersville native.
The West Liberty tornado killed six people. No one died in Salyersville, which Elam and other residents equate to an act of God.
"We had a couple people who were hurt, some of them pretty bad. But they're still alive; that's the biggest thing," said Paul Howard, Salyersville fire chief and emergency management director.
However, the small town was left with a big mess, and the lives of its residents, teachers and students are forever changed. Howard said he hopes the city can return to 90 percent of what it was by this time next year, but the emotional toll will linger.
"We'll never fully be back to normal," he said. "We had that old myth that a tornado could never get down between the hills, that the hills would protect us. But it proved us wrong March 2, 2012."
Students at the middle school and Salyersville Grade School, also heavily damaged by the tornado, have not seen the inside of those buildings in more than a year.
The elementary students were moved to an old high school behind the board of education offices on Ky. 7. Middle school students are taking classes at Magoffin County High School, Holbrook said.
"It was designed to hold 700 kids and it's got right at 1,000 in it," he said.
Salyersville Grade School was not a total loss, but students won't return until August at the earliest, once $5 million to $6 million in repairs are made, he said.
The future of Herald Whitaker Middle School is less clear. The building was insured through the Kentucky School Board Insurance Trust, a program administered by the Kentucky League of Cities, which has yet to pay up.
The League and its underwriters offered $13.6 million toward construction of a new school, which is about $4.3 million less than what the district needs, Holbrook said.
After months of failed negotiations, the insurance adjuster stopped returning calls, he said. However, Ned Wertz, director of claims and underwriting for the League of Cities, said the school district had not provided necessary information to insurers.
The school board sued the insurance trust and the League of Cities on Jan. 24. The lawsuit is pending in Magoffin Circuit Court.
Wertz said he thinks an out-of-court settlement can be reached, but Holbrook said he had no choice but to sue.
"The public wants something to be done. They're looking at me to make some type of a move toward making our community whole again," he said.
'Two schools in one'
Students and staff are making the best of it.
"It's really not been bad. We're basically two schools in one," high school principal Tony Skaggs said. "Of course, everybody's eager to get back to a state of normalcy."
The most common complaint, Skaggs said, is from middle schoolers who have to eat lunch early. The school serves lunch in four shifts to get everyone fed. Middle schoolers go first.
Elam said her daughter eats about 10:45 a.m., just a few hours after breakfast.
"That's pretty early for lunch," she said.
But Elam and other residents have accepted such things.
"The children at the middle school — my daughter — would rather be back in their own school, but the school system is doing excellent with what little they have to work with," she said. "I told my kids to just be thankful you have some place to go to school."
Something to smile about
At Paula and Jenna's Unique Hair Designs, Elam's salon, the school system is a topic of conversation for another reason: the Magoffin County High School Lady Hornets.
The healing power of hoops has been evident in Salyersville lately. Despite the town's struggles, the basketball team has drawn record crowds for two seasons running.
"They're giving their community something to smile and cheer about," Skaggs said. "And they've done that ever since the tornado hit here last year. It's been one of the most successful teams in school history."
After losing to Shelby Valley in the regional tournament in Pikeville on Saturday — a team they beat earlier this year in the 15th Region All "A" Classic — the Magoffin County girls won't be returning to the Sweet Sixteen tournament this year.
The team was disappointed, Coach Scott Castle said, but their town was not disappointed in them.
"I think the seniors accomplished things that probably no other team in Magoffin history has ever accomplished," he said.
That includes two All "A" tournament wins and two 57th District championships in a row. Their most recent district win was at Magoffin County High School on Feb. 22.
A crowd nearly the size of Salyersville's population looked on as the team's seven seniors cut down the nets in their own gymnasium after the Lady Hornets beat rival Sheldon Clark 48-42.
It was a bittersweet moment, said Haley Campbell, a senior forward for Magoffin County. The thrill of the last home game for her and most of her teammates — seniors make up more than half the team — was diminished somewhat by the lingering effects of the tornado.
"Our town as a whole has been through a lot, and our school, too," Campbell said. "It's always at the back of our minds."
The girls dedicated the season not only to survivors of the tornado but to Dalton Dingus, a 9-year-old Magoffin County boy with cystic fibrosis who died in January. Dalton's story made national headlines in December after a social media blitz resulted in him receiving 800,000 Christmas cards from well-wishers the world over.
"We were inspired by his story and how hard he fought against his circumstances," Campbell said.
The team hoped to inspire others in return.
"Last season, when we made it to the state tournament, it was a big inspiration for our town because everyone was down," she said. "It was awesome to bring everybody up in the midst of tragedy."
Putting on a brave face
Not all of the damage to the town can be quantified easily. The emotional toll on homeowners and business owners, and the economic effect on the city, are harder to measure, said Howard, the Salyersville fire chief.
The local economy has taken a nose dive, he said. The county's unemployment rate is hovering near 17 percent, the highest in the state, due in part to the destruction of businesses along the Mountain Parkway.
About 400 unemployed people depend on food banks for meals, and the loss of so many retail businesses caused a decrease in the city's tax revenue, making it hard for the government to pay its bills.
"There's no way you can ensure how much tax base you bring in from people selling their products," Howard said.
Anxiety is palpable. Elam, the salon owner, recalled a story told to her by a school-bus monitor a couple weeks ago, when a tornado watch prompted parents to keep their kids out of school.
"Out of 70 kids that usually are on that bus, 14 were on it that morning, out of fear, afraid that it is going to happen again," Elam said.
However, most residents put on a brave face, she said. Parents are teaching their kids not to be afraid of the weather, even if they're a little scared themselves.
The likelihood of such a tornado happening again any time soon is pretty slim, WKYT meteorologist Chris Bailey said.
He paid a visit to his hometown Friday to talk to middle school children about how tornadoes form and to try to alleviate some of the fear that sends students into fits of tears at the mere mention of the word.
The Salyersville twister — which missed Bailey's childhood home by about 500 feet — was part of an extremely rare weather phenomenon.
"You simply do not see tornadoes of that magnitude anywhere in Kentucky," he said. "At no point in my life did I ever think I would see Salyersville and that area look like what I saw that night."
Stories in this series
This is Day 3 in this series. See the first two at Kentucky.com/tornado:
Stories planned for this week include:
Tuesday: Revisiting Broke Leg Falls Park, a 14-acre park with waterfalls in eastern Menifee County.
Wednesday: West Liberty's doughboy statue has been repaired.