Eddie and Sherri Granger’s new life running an antique store in West Liberty, Ky., collapsed in a heap of debris when a tornado demolished their nearly century-old building while tearing through this eastern Kentucky town nestled in the Appalachian foothills.
Six months later, the Florida transplants are not only staying, they’re expanding. It’s a welcome sign of optimism amid the devastation in downtown West Liberty, where the flow of drive-by traffic has returned but commerce hasn’t.
“I don’t want a ghost town for Main Street,” Sherri Granger said recently at the end of another sweaty day of restoring their building.
Empty lots dot the town’s compact downtown, along with still-crumbled buildings lined by yellow caution tape. They’re grim reminders of the havoc caused by the tornado that roared through the Morgan County seat on March 2.
An EF-3 tornado packing winds up to 140 mph pounded the town, part of a pre-spring outbreak of tornadoes that hit a number of Kentucky counties, damaging thousands of homes and businesses. Two dozen people were killed statewide, including six in Morgan County, according to Gov. Steve Beshear’s office. State and federal officials approved millions of dollars in emergency assistance to help people recover from a stretch of severe weather from Feb. 29 to March 3, the governor’s office said.
Amid the struggles in West Liberty, there are signs of renewal in this tight-knit community about 90 miles from Lexington.
Homes are being repaired or rebuilt. Government offices reopened. Businesses and churches posted signs vowing comebacks.
“If the resilience of the people wasn’t there, nothing else would happen,” said Tim Conley, the county judge-executive.
But the renewal is gradual _ agonizingly slow for some in the town of just more than 3,000 residents. Conley estimates that countywide storm damage will total between $75 million and $100 million, nearly three-fourths of it covered by insurance or government assistance.
The Grangers hope their Red Rooster Antiques store is back in business by Thanksgiving. For now, they’re the building’s sole tenants. They’re restoring it to resemble how the building looked in the early 1900s.
“We’re going to bring it back to life,” an enthusiastic Eddie Granger said.
One eagerly awaited milestone is the comeback of the Freezer Fresh, a local icon where people grab burgers and milkshakes. A sign on the rebuilt restaurant says it’s reopening soon.
In late August, the county fair and a fish fry drew big crowds. The football field is repaired and the Morgan County High School Cougars hosted their first game of the season. The annual Sorghum Festival won’t skip a beat at the end of September.
“People want to find normalcy,” said local bank president Hank Allen. “Because of the devastation, there’s not as much to do as there was before. So when there is an event, there is an outpouring of support.”
In a sign that the storm didn’t drive families away, enrollment in the Morgan County public school system has barely dipped from a year ago. At the start of this school year, total enrollment was 2,061, down just six students from the same time in 2011.
There are other signs that the town’s spirit is unbroken. In the empty lot at the town’s main intersection, where the local Methodist church once stood, the congregation posted a sign: “Jesus is coming back and so are we.”
The Methodist Church now meets for Sunday services in the auditorium at Morehead State University’s extension campus in West Liberty. During the week, the space is used as a temporary courtroom.
“We tell people you get justice during the week and mercy on the weekend,” pastor Jamie Brunk said.
All that’s left of the West Liberty Christian Church is a pile of concrete rubble. Preliminary drawings have been sketched to replace the century-old building that doubled as a community center.
For ministers, the work to rebuild has become another big task, mixed with regular pastoral duties while comforting the community.
“Counseling is happening,” said Paul Casteel, pastor at the Christian Church. “We don’t have an office anymore. Our new office is the field, literally.”
Meanwhile, a shortage of rental housing has made for crowded living arrangements, as the displaced moved in with friends or relatives.
After months of staying with a friend, 64-year-old Velma Dulen had just found her own place _ a small rental house. Her mobile home was destroyed, along with most of her belongings. She never thought about moving away from the place she’s called home most of her life.
“These people don’t give up,” she said of her neighbors. “It’s our home.”
Full recovery may be two or three years away, but the pace won’t slacken, Conley said.
“By the one-year anniversary, we’re going to be