Fourth of July storm topples a church steeple and damages buildings in Paintsville

The steeple of the First Baptist Church in Paintsville was ripped off during heavy winds on Wednesday.
The steeple of the First Baptist Church in Paintsville was ripped off during heavy winds on Wednesday. Photo provided by J.R. Vanhoose

Stiff gusts of wind ripped through the Eastern Kentucky town of Paintsville Wednesday night, taking down a church steeple, uprooting trees and leaving hundreds without electricity for much of Thursday.

Paintsville Mayor Mike Runyon said some properties received damage that could cost tens of thousands of dollars to repair.

Response crews from Johnson County and city worked Thursday to clean up debris, which included some uprooted trees that Runyon said were hundreds of years old.

No one was injured during the storm.

"I just couldn’t believe the wind was that strong that it would uproot a tree that’s been standing for I don’t know how long," he said. "We just thought it was a normal summer storm."

National Weather Service forecaster Peter Geogerian said a microburst — a weather effect, also called a downdraft, that pushes strong, localized winds to the ground — caused straight-line gusts around 7:30 p.m. that topped out at about 85 miles per hour.

J.R. Vanhoose, a teacher at Johnson Central High School, was at his Paintsville home when the weather rolled in.

"I stepped out for a minute and on one end of town you could see the dark clouds coming in. On the other side you could see blue sky and the sun was still shining," Vanhoose said. "Then all of the sudden it just started raining really hard. I just happened to look at my neighbors trees and they were swinging back and forth."

After the storm, Vanhoose said he and his wife walked around town to talk to neighbors and see if anyone needed help.

"This is a tight-knit community. When something like that happens, everybody bands together and helps out their neighbors," he said.

Despite the storm, the city proceeded with its scheduled Fourth of July celebrations, including fireworks.

Kimberly Peters, who grew up in Paintsville and was visiting family there during the storm, said that while watching the fireworks "you couldn’t help but get chillbumps."

"Even after all of the damage that Paintsville suffered from that storm, they still let the fireworks off," she said. "I just think that says a whole lot about that little town and the community and the people that live there."

Peters said the weather began with quarter-sized hail. Then, about thirty minutes later, the winds came.

"You could look out at the trees, out past the Big Sandy, and you could just see waves from the rain," Peters said. "The wind, it was just fierce. It was really scary."

The steeple of the First Baptist Church in Paintsville was torn off during heavy winds on July 4, 2018. Angela Sparks Photo provided by Angela Sparks

Runyon, the mayor, was at a friend's house celebrating the Fourth of July when the winds hit. Even though that house was just six blocks away from the main gusts, Runyon said he thought the storm was "a normal Eastern Kentucky storm."

Soon after, he started getting calls reporting major damage in the city.

"I couldn’t believe that there would be that much damage," he said.

Among the buildings damaged was First Baptist Church of Paintsville, which lost its steeple, and an eye doctor's office, which lost its roof.

Angela Sparks, a member of the church, said the steeple fell right next to the church, but didn't do any damage to the road or nearby homes.

"It was almost like God placed it right beside our church so it wouldn’t fall on the road or on someone’s house," Sparks said. "Had it blown any further, it would have done immense damage."