Tornado survivors, one year later: pausing to grieve, reflect and look ahead

Work continued last week on the Old Morgan Courthouse, which, along with the iron fence in the foreground, was heavily damaged by last year's tornado in West Liberty.
Work continued last week on the Old Morgan Courthouse, which, along with the iron fence in the foreground, was heavily damaged by last year's tornado in West Liberty. Herald-Leader

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories about the 2012 tornado.

WEST LIBERTY — Saturday will be a day of both joy and sorrow for Joyce Morris.

It will be a joyous day because Morris' brand-new energy-efficient home, just finished by Habitat for Humanity, will be dedicated in West Liberty, one year to the day after her old rental house was destroyed when a tornado ripped through town. Morris and her three children escaped injury, taking shelter in a bathroom.

"If you had told me a year ago that I was going to be a homeowner, I would have just laughed at you," she said last week. "Now, my kids have plans for decorating their room and all the landscaping outside."

But there will be sorrow as Morris remembers six Morgan Countians who died in the devastating storm on March 2, 2012.

That afternoon — just two days after at least 11 tornadoes had struck various parts of Kentucky — a powerful weather front unleashed the state's deadliest wave of twisters in 38 years.

Scattered tornadoes raged across a wide swath, from Henderson County in Western Kentucky to Kenton County in Northern Kentucky, extending south almost to Tennessee, and reaching east to West Virginia. The storms directly or indirectly caused 25 deaths in six counties and millions of dollars in damage. Only the tornadoes of April 1974, which caused 77 deaths, had more fatalities.

According to state figures, more than 670 homes were destroyed and more than 4,500 were damaged. Those figures didn't include damage to businesses and governmental properties.

Over the past year, government agencies have pumped millions of dollars in relief and assistance into communities affected by the storms. According to state estimates, that includes $8.3 million in housing assistance, $2 million in other forms of assistance, $11.6 million in Small Business Administration loans, $500,000 in SBA business loans, and $16.8 million obligated by the Federal Emergency Management Administration for government repair or replacement projects.

In addition, almost $30 million in grants from government and private sources will go to help rebuild downtown West Liberty, the city that suffered the most damage.

Thanks to such efforts — plus work by armies of volunteers — life in the affected counties gradually has returned to something like normal. But more work remains.

Photos: Tornado survivors one year later

Photos: Magoffin County one year later

Photos: West Liberty tornado one-year anniversary

Photos: Kentucky tornado victims

Photos: Kentucky tornado damage from the air

Photos: Menifee County damage, March 3, 2012

Photos: Kentucky storms, March 6, 2012 coverage

Photos: Kentucky storm damage, including schools, March 7, 2012

Video: Dramatic storm videos

Video: More up close views of the West Liberty, Pulaski tornadoes

Much more previous photos, coverage

New homes are going up to replace those destroyed. Wrecked businesses are reopening, some in larger buildings than they had before.

"We're coming back," Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley said.

Conley said Morgan County was hit twice last year. One twister struck on Feb. 28, 2012, when some county businesses were damaged, but the March 2 tornado delivered the devastating blow.

"It hit every community in a 36-mile line across the county," Conley said. "Psychologically, there's always going to be a scar. We'll never forget what happened, but we are coming back."

In Laurel County five residents died when a tornado hit the East Bernstadt area on March 2. County Judge-Executive David Westerfield said conditions are improving.

"We still have some vacant lots, but people are building back. I'd say that 90 or 95 percent have replaced the homes they've lost," Westerfield said. "It's amazing how the community has pulled together. I was never turned down by anyone that I asked for help."

But even as buildings are being restored, residents who lost their loved ones, or who saw everything they owned destroyed, are trying to rebuild their lives. Some, like Cassie Gray of Manchester, continue to ask "why?"

Gray lost a daughter and son-in-law, Debbie and Sherman Dewayne Allen, when a tornado destroyed their mobile home in East Bernstadt. Gray's grandson, Eric Allen, who also was in the trailer, was seriously injured, as was his then-fiancee, Amy Harris.

"Debbie was the one I counted on, because my other daughters live farther away," Gray, 71, said last week. "She was always there, her and Dewayne both. I know we're not to question God. But why he took them both ... I don't know."

Emotional aftershocks

In some affected communities, students whose schools were devastated by the storms are in temporary classrooms. But new schools for them are being built or are being planned.

Nevertheless, educators and officials said that many youngsters — and their parents — are dealing with the emotional aftershocks of the storms.

"Kids are extremely scared," said Stanley Holbrook, superintendent of the Magoffin County Public Schools. Every one of the district's buildings was damaged, one beyond repair.

"Now, every time we have a storm of any kind, we have high absenteeism because parents are afraid to send their kids to school," Holbrook said. "If there's a tornado warning on the news, or any risk of high winds, younger kids just cry. They are that scared."

Magoffin County's recovery is moving slowly.

The storms dealt a one-two punch to the county's economy, which already was struggling with cutbacks in the coal industry. Since last March 2, Magoffin County's unemployment rate has hovered near 17 percent, the highest in Kentucky.

Fourteen businesses in the county seat of Salyersville — restaurants, hotels and gas stations — were wiped out, and only two have been rebuilt. About 70 people once employed in those businesses remain out of work, said Paul Howard, the Salyersville fire chief and the county emergency management director.

Salyersville's tax base has suffered because of storm damage, and city license fee receipts have fallen, Howard said. He said Salyersville has had to lay off three employees.

Another sign of the pinch: Immediately after the storms, Magoffin County's Lake Front Church of God fed about 700 people a month through its God's Pantry food bank, according to Sarah Patrick, whose husband, Larry Patrick is the pastor. The church fed 425 county residents last month, Sarah Patrick said.

West Liberty Mayor Jim Rupe said the full economic impact of the storms hasn't hit his city yet. He said he expects sharp tax revenue declines this year.

"We don't see it right now, but this tax season we will see a big difference," Rupe said. "I'm pleased with the way things are coming back, but we still have a lot of vacant lots and businesses to get back. We haven't laid anybody off or cut any services, and I don't plan on it."

Grant Sorrell, vice chairman of the Menifee County long-term recovery committee, said some residents are struggling with memories of last March 2. Some couples who lost homes have split up, he said.

"It was so traumatic, I guess, that after a while, they couldn't take it anymore," Sorrell said. "It's still strong with everybody here."

Sorrell said many residents now want to install storm shelters, which he said can cost $3,000 to $10,000.

"With spring coming and the possibility of more storms," he said, "I think you're going to have a lot of people getting nervous."

From cleanup to rebuilding

On a brighter note, the Menifee County recovery committee recently finished three new houses for families who lacked enough insurance to replace the homes they lost in the storm. Committee co-chairman James Botts said the panel also will have a new house ready soon for Ronnie Bowman, whose wife, Beverly Bowman, was one of three Menifee Countians killed in the tornado.

The new house will be built on property that Ronnie Bowman recently bought, not on the site of the original home, which was destroyed.

"He said his memories would be too bad to go back there," Botts said. "He still struggles, and when he talks about the storm, it all comes back to him."

There's more good news from Cave Run Habitat for Humanity, which plans to build about 20 new homes for storm victims in Menifee and Morgan counties. Executive director Greg Dike said three houses, including Joyce Morris' new home in West Liberty, are finished. The rest should be done by spring 2014.

Habitat will rely heavily on volunteers to build over the summer, Dike said.

"Last summer was mainly for cleanup; this summer the rebuilding will really get going," he said. "It's a really ambitious project for us. But after the tornadoes, it's really needed."

More than 390 homes were destroyed in Morgan County. Conley, the county judge-executive, estimated that 100 to 150 families are rebuilding, including some folks in the rural communities of Moon and Woodsbend.

One lingering question concerns rental housing. Conley said 52 rental houses in West Liberty haven't yet been replaced. The city's 48-unit Liberty Heights Apartments, a federally subsidized housing complex, remains uninhabitable.

Winterwood Inc., a firm that manages Liberty Heights, said it is working with federal and state housing officials on plans to replace the complex. Ground could be broken this summer, the company said.

Albert Hale, Laurel County's emergency management director, said many people who lost mobile homes in last year's storms have moved into new ones. Some have upgraded from single-wide to double-wide, he said.

All the county's tornado deaths involved mobile homes.

"A trailer just cannot stand up to a tornado," said Hale, who lives in a mobile home himself.

He said many residents didn't take storm warnings seriously enough last year.

"We had warnings even a week beforehand of possible tornado activity," he said. "It's sad, but I don't think people really heeded the warnings. Everybody thinks that something bad isn't going to happen to them."

Dealing with disasters is Hale's job. But he admits that even he has problems with violent storms.

"I have a terror of them," he said. "If I get the call that they're coming, I will go out and look for them. But I don't like storms."

If you go

Some Kentucky communities hit by the March 2, 2012, tornadoes will mark the storms' anniversary Saturday with programs and memorial services.

■ A memorial to the Menifee County residents who were killed in the storms will be dedicated in a ceremony at 3:30 p.m. at the county courthouse in Frenchburg.

■ The First Baptist Church in East Bernstadt in Laurel County will hold a memorial service at 6 p.m. for the five county residents who were killed.

■ Morgan Countians will remember their county's six tornado victims with a program starting at 3 p.m. at Morgan County High School in West Liberty.

coming UP

Sunday: Residents who were displaced after the March 2 tornado.

Monday: Efforts to rebuild homes, businesses and schools in Salyersville.

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.

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