Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Update on West Liberty's recovery from devastating tornado

Workmen begin extensive repairs to the second story of a commercial building on Main Street in West Liberty on May 16.  Photo by Tom Eblen |
Workmen begin extensive repairs to the second story of a commercial building on Main Street in West Liberty on May 16. Photo by Tom Eblen | Herald-Leader

WEST LIBERTY — I first met Donna Pelfrey, the Morgan County Circuit Court clerk, on March 6. She was standing in a debris-strewn street outside her demolished office, having just gotten a hug from Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr.

A tornado had blown through town four evenings earlier, killing six people and demolishing everything in its path.

Pelfrey and state Administrative Office of the Courts employees had made their way into town the day after the storm to secure records in the office vault. When I met them, they were moving them to a temporary courthouse just outside town.

Pelfrey has been clerk for a dozen years and was deputy clerk for 24 years before that. Now, faced with the biggest disaster to ever strike her hometown, she was scrambling to help restore order. It was a family affair: her husband, Rick Pelfrey, outside plant manager for Mountain Telephone, was working night and day to restore cell-phone and land-line service to the county.

I returned last week, 75 days after the tornado, to see how recovery efforts were going. I figured Donna Pelfrey would be a good person to ask.

I found her in the temporary courthouse, a Morehead State University extension campus classroom building. It is in the nearby community of Index, which has become the new nerve center of a Morgan County on the mend.

The building's auditorium is both a makeshift courtroom and church, depending on the day of the week. Various agencies and businesses are upstairs and in the Regional Enterprise Center next door. West Liberty Elementary School is in a former industrial building at the top of the hill.

Pelphrey and her six assistants work in a big, windowless room of the MSU building, where they expect to be for at least two years. A new judicial center was being built next to the century-old courthouse where they worked when the tornado hit. Work is stalled while structural engineers assess the damage.

Much of the past 75 days has been a blur, Pelfrey said. She considers herself lucky: Her immediate family was unhurt, and her home was only slightly damaged. Still, the tornado killed a cousin and a woman she had worked with for 25 years. Her sister's home was demolished. "That kind of stuff has been hard to deal with," she said.

Pelfrey hears a lot from people who come into the clerk's office every day. "What I hear more than anything is people having insurance trouble," she said. "They're fussing about their insurance, and adjusters, and they can't get what they need."

Some still seem traumatized. "They have a lot of stories to tell," she said.

They talk of having impulsively taken shelter in a certain corner of their home — the only corner left standing when their house collapsed. Then there was the woman who, seeing the tornado coming, tried to take shelter in the Family Dollar store. The door was locked, so she clutched the rails of the shopping cart corral as hard as she could to keep from being blown away.

Only once in our conversation did Pelfrey come close to tears. That was when she recalled all of the strangers who have poured into West Liberty since May 2 to help clean up, or who have sent clothing and supplies for her neighbors in need.

"When you saw church buses and truckloads of people volunteering their time, that was the most surprising thing," she said. A roofing company from another town went from house to house, putting tarps on damaged roofs for free.

Pelfrey said she hasn't heard any reports of scam artist repairmen who often show up in towns after disasters. She said she knows of only two or three people who were charged with looting.

Cleanup and reconstruction have put a lot of people back to work, but the future remains uncertain. Pelfrey says she thinks it will be at least two years before West Liberty returns to anything approaching normal.

The restoration of Salyer Cemetery, where monuments were flattened, has boosted people's spirits, she said. The pizza restaurant is supposed to reopen this week, and there is a sign on Main Street saying the Chinese restaurant will return soon.

There's no word yet on the fate of Freezer Fresh Dairy, which for years was West Liberty's most popular hangout. There are doubts about whether some downtown businesses, which were struggling before the storm, will ever come back.

After weeks of waiting for insurance settlements, demolition and reconstruction work is now under way along Main Street, which makes Pelfrey's daily commute through town a little more encouraging.

"Every time you see something come back, it lifts your spirits," she said.

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