Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

March 3, 2012

'We had a nice little town'

WEST LIBERTY — Most residents of West Liberty had never seen anything like the tornado that devastated the Morgan County seat Friday evening.

But, for Dale Oakley, surveying the destruction in the heart of the ruined town brought a sense of “deja vu.”

Oakley, an employee of the Advance Auto Parts store in West Liberty, said the damage was eerily similar to what he saw in Xenia, Ohio, after that city was nearly wiped off the map by a twister during the “Super Outbreak” of April 3-4, 1974, the second-largest tornado outbreak on record for a 24-hour period.

Oakley, who was working as a sheriff’s deputy in Xenia in 1974, said he was preparing to leave work at the auto parts store Friday when he looked out and saw the clouds in the upper atmosphere rotating and, from prior experience, recognized that as a sure sign a tornado was imminent.

He said he and a fellow employee hunkered down between the racks in the store and rode out the storm.

Damage to the parts store — a smashed front window and a blown-down sign — was minor, particularly compared to what the rest of West Liberty’s downtown sustained. A walking tour of that area made that abundantly clear.

The Morgan County Courthouse was wrecked, its clock tower and a statue in front of it both blown down, its windows blown out and large tree on its front lawn uprooted. A new courthouse under construction adjacent to the old one also was heavily damaged.

A short distance away, the West Liberty municipal building sat empty and mostly destroyed. A police cruiser lay on its side in front of the empty structure.

Another damaged cruiser sat nearby. Its roof-mounted light bar was smashed, indicating the vehicle had been upside down and its left front wheel was missing. But, oddly, the lug nuts that would normally have held the wheel in place were still intact.

Utility poles that had been snapped in two like matchsticks and downed wires littered the streets.

The tour also revealed the odd, random pattern of destruction that often comes with a tornado. On one stretch of the town’s main thoroughfare were three buildings — one in rubble, one moderately damaged and one virtually unscathed.

The new, nearly completed Mountain Rural Telephone building appeared untouched. But, the phone company’s old building next door had severe damage.

Telephone service, electricity and water service were completely knocked out by the storm, which also affected businesses and residents in places away from the downtown, which was the area impacted the most by the twister.

Death toll at four

The death toll in West Liberty and Morgan County from the storm stood at four Saturday morning. Three died in the county and one in the city, said Lt. David Jude, a spokesman for the Kentucky State Police. The names of the deceased were not being released, nor was information about how they were killed.

The KSP initially said 75 were injured, but Jude said he couldn’t confirm the accuracy of that number. He also said a number of people were still unaccounted for, and the task of trying to account for them was complicated by the lack of communications and the fact many of them had been taken to shelters in neighboring counties.

Asked to estimate how many people had been displaced by the storm, Jude suggested consulting the 2010 census.

“The whole town has been displaced,” he said.

West Liberty’s population is about 3,400, according to the census.

Authorities were limiting access to the town Saturday in an effort to prevent looting and to keep sightseers from interfering with the work of emergency crews. Checkpoints were set up on all the main road. Jude said “lockdown” would be the proper term to describe the state the city had been placed under. He said the plan was to open the city back up little by little as emergency workers finished searching for victims and made sure all areas were safe.

Fire crews from all over the state converged on West Liberty to assist in what Jude said was a massive “search and rescue” mission. State Fire Commissioner Ronnie Day estimated there were at least 45 different agencies on the scene.

Helping hands

Chief Michael Rupard of the Jessamine County Fire Department was taking a break after working 15 consecutive hours. He said the damage in West Liberty was the worst he’d seen in his 26 years in fire services.

Rupard said local emergency officials were doing a good job when his department arrived in town.

“All we did was jump in to support them,” he said.

Carter County Emergency Management Director Tommy Thompson brought a crew to West Liberty to do “whatever they need us to do.” He expressed hope that the town would be able to bounce back.

“I just hope this place doesn’t turn into a ghost town,” he said.

Numerous homes along Riverside Drive were heavily damaged. A hillside just down from Morgan County Appalachian Regional Hospital was littered with broken trees. Some said it appeared as though the twister made its way down the hill and into the downtown.

The National Weather Service has rated the tornados that devastated both West Liberty and Salyersville as Category 3 storms, with sustained winds of 136 to 165 mph.

Most of West Liberty’s residents and business owners had been cleared out of town Saturday, many evacuated to Red cross shelters that were set up at Elliott County High School, Rowan County Middle School and Morehead State University. But a few still wandered amid the rubble, trying to salvage anything they could.

Many wondered aloud whether the town would ever rebound from what was surely the worst destruction in its history.

“I think the character of it might be different. But, I’m sure we’ll keep our heritage,” said Sarah Fannin, Morgan County agriculture extension agent. “There’s a lot of loss to grieve. People will just have to take time to do so, and then maybe we can start building back.”

Fannin went to her office hoping to retrieve her computer hard drive, which she said contained important information. But, all she came away with were a framed print and a few personal belongings. She said the extension service’s office building was damaged to such a degree that it was unsafe for her to enter it.

Sandy Shively and her daughter, Regina Wright, walked along Riverside Drive. The two women’s homes are a short distance apart. Wright’s was virtually untouched, but Shively’s was leveled.

Shively said she and her 88-year-old mother took shelter in the bathroom when they heard the storm approaching. While in there, they heard the rest of the house being blown apart around them. when they finally emerged, they heard “a lot of screaming and hollering,” Shively said.

“We’re just thankful that God spared our lives,” she said.

Heartbroken

Glois Williams, who lives in West Liberty city limits, said her house emerged from the storm with only minor damage. But, she said seeing all the destruction in the heart of the city’s downtown broke her heart.

“”I’ve seen the town grow from year to year. It’s hard to believe it’s all gone,” she said. “We had a nice little town here.”

While West Liberty received the brunt of the storm’s fury, there was also heavy damage — including downed trees, flattened barns and several wrecked houses — evident in a rural area on Ky. 705, near the Woodsbend Youth Development Center.

Friday’s twister was the second to hit West Liberty in two days. Wednesday’s storm was not nearly as destructive, but did damage several buildings along U.S. 460, including a large structure that housed a flea market.

Businesses and other establishments along U.S. 460, including the medium-security Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, were not damaged by Friday’s storm, but businesses were unable to open due to the lack of power and water.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.

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