From Rubble to Renewal: Kentucky Town Responds to Last Year’s Tornado

Tax preparer Betty Helton no longer meets her customers at a park bench in this tornado-ravaged Appalachian town. Hungry customers are back ordering burgers and shakes at Freezer Fresh. A bank moved out of a grocery store and into its new building.

West Liberty, a town of about 3,200 residents, is slowly recovering from the late-winter tornado that leveled much of its downtown nearly a year ago on March 2. Homes have been repaired and rebuilt. Shops are beginning to reopen along Main Street, though empty lots are plentiful — painful reminders that the comeback is far from complete in the Morgan County seat, about 85 miles east of Lexington.

“You have folks that are discouraged,” said Cody Prater, officer manager of The Citizens Bank. “They say, ‘Our town is never going to be the same.’ My response is, it probably won’t, but we hope that during this rebuild it could maybe be better.

“These are some tough people. The majority of the folks believe we got knocked down but we’re not going to stay down.”

Sections of this eastern Kentucky town were reduced to rubble by the powerful EF-3 tornado, packing 140-mph winds. Residents rushed for shelter that early evening as the massive storm bore down on them. Several people huddled together in a small cubbyhole in the basement of the local United Methodist Church as the building collapsed.

It was part of an outbreak of twisters that hit several Kentucky counties, damaging or destroying thousands of homes and businesses. Twenty-five people died statewide, including six in Morgan County. The Morgan County judge-executive estimates the countywide damage reached about $250 million.

In West Liberty, churches were destroyed and the local elementary school was too badly damaged to salvage. Some congregations still worship in temporary quarters, and children are attending classes in a one-time factory while a new school is built.

At one empty corner of the busiest downtown intersection, the Methodist church vows to make a comeback on the same site where its parishioners worshipped for decades. The congregation posted a sign: “Jesus is coming back and so are we.”

Nearby, Helton has rebuilt her tax preparation office, a sign of renewal in a downtown struggling to attract businesses.

The tornado sheared the roof off her office building. She finished last tax season by meeting customers on a nearby park bench.

“You’ve got to finish your job,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. I just hope this year is a lot better than last year.”

She hurried from her office about 12 minutes before the building was demolished. A couple of customers were in the office and she had more appointments that evening, but when her son called and told her “to get out now,” she didn’t hesitate.

Now she has a roof over her office but it’s bare inside. Sheet rock walls need painting and the final flooring hasn’t been installed. Helton works from a folding table that had a calculator and tax files piled on it. Two folding chairs are set up for customers, who arrived one afternoon morning at a steady pace.

She keeps office hours throughout the week but does her tax work from home, about 25 miles outside West Liberty.

Many of the downtown store owners were older, and some have decided to retire rather than start over, she said. Helton has three other spaces in the same building she hopes to rent.

“It’s kind of lonesome,” she said. “You knew all your neighbors and you’d see all these people every day. It was a neat little town.”

On the same block, Eddie and Sherri Granger recently reopened their antique store. Their building was badly damaged by the storm, but they decided to use the tornado as an opportunity to expand and reinvest in West Liberty. They bought the other half of the building from a floral shop owner who decided to retire. The upstairs is available for another business, and they bought a building next door and hope to attract someone to turn it into a diner.

They set aside space in their antique shop for people to sit down, chat and catch up on their email thanks to free wireless. For the Florida transplants, it’s part of their contribution to create a new hometown feel in a town struggling to get back to normal.

“The history is gone, yes,” Eddie Granger said. “But we can start making our own history now for the next 100 years.”

The Citizens Bank recently opened its new bank just off Main Street. The new bank is bigger and has more parking than the previous building, which was demolished by the storm. For nearly a year, the bank squeezed into a section of a nearby grocery store.

“We understand that it’s just a building,” Prater said. “But we hope it’s a symbol … that things can come back.”

One tradition that has returned is the Freezer Fresh, a local icon known for its burgers and shakes. On a recent afternoon, the parking lot was filled with customers who walked up to the window to place orders.

“That was a bright spot,” said local resident Rusty Collinsworth, a retired state employee. “Getting that back was very important.”

Meanwhile, West Liberty’s reconstruction will get a big boost from an infusion of $29.3 million in federal, state and private funds. The money will go toward building a youth recreation and wellness center, a new cooperative extension office and a new parking garage. The county office building and community center will be renovated, and the old county courthouse will be restored.

“The destruction I witnessed in Morgan County … was unlike anything I have ever seen,” said Gov. Steve Beshear, adding that those projects will serve as symbols of “better things to come.”