Survivors of March tornadoes 'putting it back together, a little bit at a time'

Mike Pennington, left, Doug Scott and Shannon Johnson prepared to cut a piece of trim while building a house to replace Johnson's mobile home, which was destroyed in the March 2 tornado.
Mike Pennington, left, Doug Scott and Shannon Johnson prepared to cut a piece of trim while building a house to replace Johnson's mobile home, which was destroyed in the March 2 tornado.

EAST BERNSTADT — Two men were doing drywall work last week at Carol and Donald Rhodes' new house in Laurel County, which replaces the one shredded by a tornado six months ago as the couple huddled in the basement with family members.

One ridge to the east, next to the shell of a small mobile home destroyed in the March 2 tornado, friends were putting metal trim on Shannon Johnson's new house, being built with materials donated by churches.

Just up the road, a friend was working on a front porch for the doublewide mobile home Lloyd Isaacs and his wife, Betty, moved into a month ago. The home is on a block foundation on the spot where the couple's house stood for 89 years before the tornado wrecked it. There's a large new deck off the back door, and the grass sowed in the yard should come up soon.

"We're putting it back together, a little bit at a time," said Isaacs, 73.

The story is the same in more than half a dozen counties in Eastern and Northern Kentucky hit by deadly tornadoes on March 2.

Six months on, most of the debris from hundreds of splintered buildings has been cleared away. Many storm victims are building or rebuilding houses and living in new mobile homes, thanks in part to more than $25 million in aid from federal agencies. Some businesses have reopened.

Still, full recovery is a long way off in some places, local officials said.

Some people haven't yet received hoped-for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Some are living with relatives or in camper trailers as they wait for a home to be finished. And some businesses haven't reopened, leaving people out of work.

"There's a lot to be done," said Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley.

More than a dozen tornadoes raked Kentucky on March 2. Some that hit Eastern Kentucky counties were more powerful than the National Weather Service had ever recorded there.

The weather service said there were 26 deaths statewide caused directly by the severe weather. Local officials counted at least two more related to the storms. In Somerset, for instance, a woman with heart problems who apparently sought shelter in a closet got trapped when the doorknob fell off. She lived alone, and died before she was found.

The total number of homes that local officials reported as destroyed or damaged topped 2,800, according to Gov. Steve Beshear's office.

FEMA could not provide an estimate on the cost of damages statewide, though local officials estimated it was tens of millions in some counties.

"It'll take quite awhile"

There's been a good deal of progress in recovering from the tornadoes, local officials said last week.

In Salyersville, several of the 70-plus businesses damaged or destroyed by a tornado that hit the main commercial strip have reopened. Others have not, however, meaning fewer jobs in a county that had the highest unemployment in the state in July, said county emergency director Mike Wilson.

He thinks 80 percent of the businesses have returned, or will someday.

"It'll take quite awhile," he said of the recovery.

In Morgan County, a tornado damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes, according to the state, and smashed downtown West Liberty, knocking many companies out of business.

Stephen Howard, with the county's long-term recovery team, said disaster officials have said the county appears to be ahead of schedule on recovery efforts, which are expected to take two or three years.

Conley, the judge-executive, estimated there are 30 or 40 houses under construction or a contract to build.

However, insurance money and help from FEMA won't make every homeowner whole, Howard said. That means some who had adequate homes and no debt before the tornado now face the prospect of going back into debt.

"It's not something that's going to go away in six months," Howard said.

Still, there's been enough progress that the annual Sorghum Festival, set for the last weekend in September, will be held downtown just as it has been for more than 40 years, Conley said.

'I'm just amazed'

The tornado that hit Laurel County destroyed mostly homes, rather than businesses, and killed six people, tying it with Morgan for the most deaths in the state.

More than 250 homes in the county were destroyed or damaged, according to figures reported to the state.

With insurance settlements, FEMA disaster aid, Small Business Administration loans and an outpouring of donations and help from churches and volunteers, most people have repaired their homes or gotten new ones.

"For half a year, I'm just amazed," said Judy Nicholson, executive director of the United Way of Laurel County, who is in charge of the county's long-term recovery committee. "Some of these people didn't have a fork left."

The committee is looking at how to help tornado victims in the coming months.

For instance, some people bought used mobile homes that should be checked before winter to make sure the heat system is sound, Nicholson said. The committee, which handles donations, has arranged for a company to do that work.

Nicholson said storm victims will likely need help with needs such as food or heating bills in the coming months. The committee will be able to help, she said.

Carol Rhodes said she and her husband, a disabled coal miner, will be in their new home on Little Arthur Ridge by the end of September.

Rhodes said the couple got $30,000 from FEMA, but donations from churches and labor by church members played a big part in getting the house built.

She misses the personal belongings she lost in the storm, such as photos, jewelry and a Bible that listed generations of her family, but she is thankful for her new home.

"I give God the glory for every bit of it," said Rhodes, 63.

'We're scared to death'

So far, the federal Small Business Administration has approved $15.3 million worth of low-interest disaster loans to Kentucky tornado victims, while FEMA has approved $8.1 million in housing grants and $2 million for other needs, such as furniture, according to FEMA spokesman Danon Lucas.

FEMA also has approved $8.7 million in assistance to governments. FEMA also has approved $24.5 million in aid to governments, Beshear's office said in a news release.

Some people whose homes were destroyed in March are still waiting to hear if they will get FEMA aid.

The tornado destroyed Mike and Brenda Eversole's doublewide mobile home, smashing it against his tractor-trailer.

Insurance paid off the mortgage on the mobile home, but there wasn't enough left to build or buy a new home. And because Eversole carried only liability insurance on his truck to keep down costs, he also lost his livelihood when the mobile home damaged the truck.

The couple has applied for a FEMA grant, but it hasn't yet been approved. The agency asked for some additional information recently.

Eversole said his unemployment is about to run out. He doesn't know what he will do, he said.

Meanwhile, the emotional fallout from the tornadoes continues to ravage Eversole and others.

"We're scared to death when it even gets cloudy," he said.

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