The Morehead News

Local News

March 6, 2012

EF-3 tornado brings death, destruction to Morgan County

March 6, 2012 —     A raging tornado with winds estimated at 140 miles per hour unleashed its fury on West Liberty last Friday evening, leaving a shattered community and six known deaths in its wake.

    It was among three killer tornadoes that also struck Laurel, Menifee, Magoffin, Kenton and Johnson counties, said to be the worst outbreak in Kentucky in 25 years.

    The tornado ravaged both sides of West Liberty’s two primary thoroughfares, Main Street and Prestonsburg Street, as well as side streets like Riverside Drive, Glenn Avenue and Branch Street.

    Scores of homes lost roofs and windows with many collapsing into piles of rubble, strewn with scraps of insulation and mounds of furniture, clothing and other personal belongings.

    Public buildings and businesses were hard hit, especially West Liberty City Hall, the Morgan County Courthouse, Commercial Bank, the yet-to-be-completed Morgan County Judicial Center, and the old high school building.

    Electricity and telephone services, including Internet, were lost immediately, leaving the city in the dark and unable to communicate with the outside.

     Kentucky State Police troopers and Army National Guard soldiers sealed off the town about 9 p.m. Friday. Access was tightly controlled to prevent looting and to give emergency workers room to maneuver on streets littered with debris.

    Death and damage were not confined to the city limits as four persons died in rural Morgan County.

    As of Sunday night, the list of victims had not been made public. A seventh person was said to have died over the weekend but that death was not storm-related.

    An estimated 75 persons were injured and had to be evacuated to hospitals in Morehead and Mt. Sterling after the Morgan County ARH Hospital lost part of its roof and second floor windows.   

    The hospital’s clinic, home care store, home health agency and other ARH services sustained significant damage.

    Exterior doors were torn off their hinges and cars were demolished in the parking lot.

    However, no patients or staff members were injured during the storm. All patients were transferred Friday night to other medical facilities in neighboring counties.

    The hospital’s emergency room remained open to treat the injured but is not admitting patients. Patients requiring hospitalization are being sent to other facilities.

    It was reported Sunday afternoon that the hospital roof had been replaced in a period of about 24 hours.

    Police agencies, emergency medical units and various state agencies streamed into West Liberty Friday night and Saturday to response to calls for help.

    The Kentucky Division of Emergency Management established an operations center in the Commercial Bank parking lot.

    Gov. Steve Beshear visited West Liberty on Saturday morning, accompanied by Adjutant General Ed Tonini, State Sen. Robert Stivers and State Rep. John Will Stacy.

    The governor told reporters and local officials that it was the worst damage he had ever seen in a single community and that the state’s resources were being made available.

    "It looked like a bomb had been dropped in the middle of town," Beshear said. "It was a war zone."

    The next day saw the governor announce that he has requested a federal disaster declaration that will start the process of bringing federal aid into Kentucky's storm-struck counties.

    Beshear confirmed that the tornadoes had caused 21 fatalities with more than 300 persons injured.

    "I'm heartbroken by the power and destruction these tornadoes brought to our homes and our businesses and for the families who are mourning the loss of loved ones," he said.

    In his letter to President Barack Obama requesting federal help, Beshear said a total of 48 Kentucky counties had suffered damages from Friday’s storms.

    The Kentucky Public Service Commission said nearly 20,000 customers were without power.

    The governor said National Guard troops and local rescue teams had completed search and rescue missions in each of the affected counties on Saturday night and that cleanup, recovery and assessment operations would begin.   

    Nearly 400 National Guard soldiers have been mobilized throughout the state to assist with security, traffic control and other needs.

    Beshear activated a temporary executive order to prevent price gouging by vendors of gas and necessities and another order which will allow people to refill necessary, non-narcotic medications at pharmacies without consulting a doctor for 30 days.

    He said the Kentucky Department of Financial Institutions was working with storm-damaged banks in West Liberty to make sure residents had access to their money.

    Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley told an outdoor press briefing on Sunday evening that local banks would be open for business on Monday, March 5, and that county schools hopefully would reopen the following Monday.

    “We are determined to get our lives back to normal as soon as we can and to overcome what has happened to all of us,” Conley said. “Our people are strong and we will rebuild this city and this county.”   

    West Liberty Mayor Jim Rupe said the city building would be repaired and returned to service after inspectors said it was structurally sound.

    Morgan County School Supt. Deatrah Barnett said Sunday that the district’s central office building and West Liberty Elementary School had sustained heavy damage and would not be reopened.

    The school had been scheduled to close when a new facility, now in the process of being advertised for construction bids, is finished. It had an enrollment of nearly 300.

    Central office personnel will work in other buildings until further notice, Barnett said. A plan for housing the displaced elementary students is being developed.

    Morehead State University at West Liberty was not damaged in the storm but is closed until further notice because of the lack of utility service.

    As of Monday morning, no official announcement has been issued concerning a timetable for hauling away the mountain of storm debris.

    Anthony Hatton, director of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management, said Monday that state environmental inspectors have been in West Liberty since Saturday and that he expects no problems with compliance with state and federal laws on disposal of waste materials.

    Weather officials said Sunday that the tornado which struck Morgan and Menifee counties was rated as an EF-3 with a top estimated wind speed of 140 miles per hour and a damage track 34 miles long.

    The tornado that hit rural areas on Wednesday was an EF-2, officials said.

    Anyone trying to get in touch with family or friends in Morgan County can register the person's name on the web sites of the American Red Cross or Kentucky Emergency Management.      

    Teams from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) arrived in Kentucky on Sunday and were scheduled to begin assessing damages on Monday.

    In presidentially-declared disaster areas, FEMA is authorized to award cash grants to private homeowners and low-interest loans to businesses. Local governments also can quality for grants to repair or replace public property.

    When Morgan County is declared a federal disaster area, FEMA officials will open an office and accept applications for aid.

    In view of the substantial loss of housing in the West Liberty area, FEMA also could make temporary housing available with mobile homes.

    U. S. Sen. Mitch McConnell visited West Liberty on Sunday morning to tell local officials that the federal government would be a partner in the recovery of Morgan County.

    The aftermath of the tornado attracted dozens of news media organizations, including CNN and The Weather Channel.

    Keith Kappes can be reached at kkappes@themoreheadnews.com or by telephone at 784-4116.

 

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