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Five years ago, tornado left Kentucky town in rubble. Has recovery been enough?

Mayor remembers West Liberty's fatal day

West Liberty Mayor Mark Walter talks about how far the city has come since the 2012 tornado, and how much remains to be done.
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West Liberty Mayor Mark Walter talks about how far the city has come since the 2012 tornado, and how much remains to be done.

Five years after a tornado reduced sections of this Eastern Kentucky city to rubble, it has a lot to show for its progress.

Churches, banks and homes have rebuilt. There’s a new county extension office. A new Double Kwik gas station and convenience store is under construction on one end of town. On the opposite side, a new wellness and youth center has basketball courts and a walking track.

A primary intersection at West Main and Prestonsburg streets has been rebuilt. That was scheduled to be done before the tornado, but the new sidewalks and street lights that were part of the project have brought a new look to the town of 3,300.

But there are some empty lots, nagging reminders that the reconstruction of the Morgan County seat isn’t over.

Linda Oakley, owner of All Occasion Flowers, said she sees the possibilities and potential for West Liberty.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘It’ll never be the same,’” Oakley said. “Well, it’s not ever going to be exactly the same. We have a lot of new buildings we didn’t have. But I’d like to see it move faster than what it has.”

Linda Oakley, who operates a small business in West Liberty, talks about what it will take to attract more businesses to downtown in the wake of the 2012 tornado.

Bringing small businesses, such as a clothing store or other retail outlets, back to downtown is a priority for Hank Allen, chairman and CEO of Commercial Bank.

“That still remains the biggest hurdle of the recovery,” he said.

Replacing old structures with new construction that meets current code means buildings are expensive for mom-and-pop stores to rent.

“It’s still limited as far as buildings that you can go into,” said Dorcas Burton, who owns a gift shop and country décor store called The Primitive Homestead. “I’m in a house right now, and when I heard it was becoming available, I just jumped on it.”

The tornado that struck West Liberty on March 2, 2012, packed 140 mph winds. It was part of an outbreak of 18 twisters that the National Weather Service said caused 26 deaths — seven in Morgan County — and injured more than 200 people across Kentucky. Other hard-hit areas included Laurel, Magoffin, Menifee, Johnson and Martin counties.

In West Liberty, the tornado knocked the Methodist church steeple into the street. An elementary school was too badly damaged to salvage.

The emotional toll continues. People cast nervous eyes to the sky when, as on Tuesday and Wednesday, dark clouds loom overhead.

But Mayor Mark Walter said, “People want to move forward. We don’t want to talk about the loss. It takes you back to the destruction we thought we would never see.”

Slowly, the community has rebounded. Morgan County lost more than $9 million in residential, farm, commercial and industrial assessments from 2012 to 2013.

Last year, total assessments were $266 million, surpassing what they were before the storm, Property Valuation Administrator Darby Franklin said.

Some people say prices on individual lots have increased since the tornado. They cite the $200,000 paid for a less-than-an-acre lot where Dairy Queen now stands.

But “we don’t have enough comparable sales” to confirm that lot prices have increased in the city, Franklin said.

Meanwhile, West Liberty has taken the opportunity to become a showcase for innovation.

In April, Commercial Bank will debut an electronic “dashboard” that will monitor and display energy use at various buildings around town. The idea is to have an educational tool that will make students and others aware of energy efficiency, said Bobby Clark of Mideast Clean Energy Enterprise of Lexington, a consultant in the reconstruction.

Commercial Bank has achieved a gold-level certification from Leadership and Energy and Environmental Design in recognition of its energy efficiency.

In 2015, University of Kentucky architecture students presented a number of ideas to help the city recover, including a farm-to-table restaurant, a theater, a fresh food market, and a 200-foot-tall “food tower,” a vertical greenhouse that would grow fruit and vegetables for sale.

Gregory Luhan, associate dean of administration at UK’s College of Design, said he is searching for funding and research grants that could bring those ideas to fruition.

Finding money and offering incentives will be the key to attracting more businesses downtown, said Linda Oakley. She and her husband, Dale, lived through the 1974 tornado that killed more than 30 people and injured more than 1,000 others in Xenia, Ohio.

Outsiders have to have a reason to come to West Liberty, Linda Oakley said. That will mean finding the capital to bring small businesses downtown.

“There’s got to be money and investment somehow,” she said.

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