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Tornado survivors in West Liberty assure western Kentuckians they can, and will, rebuild

Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 5:34 PM EST
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WEST LIBERTY, Ky. (WKYT) - Nearly 10 years ago, a devastating tornado outbreak hit eastern Kentucky. The destruction and pain mirrors what we’re currently seeing in the western part of the state.

Main Street is the heartbeat of West Liberty, but there are gaps in between the buildings keeping the pulse of the town.

“We had people pick up and move other places where they have family. Some of those people have not come back,” said Howard Elam, CEO of Commercial Bank.

Wayne Lewis, the deputy chief of West Liberty Police, said there’s a couple businesses that aren’t there anymore. Multi-story structures now stand upright, shadowed by trees that were chopped in half by a tornado.

“We were standing in the parking lot, saw it come over the hill and it came by pretty quick,” Lewis said.

It was an EF-3 tornado that killed several and crushed the town, and there are scars that mark the landscape. One of them is Wells Hill Elementary. A replacement school was built a few miles away. Folks who live there say that building serves as a reminder of what happened there.

“It takes several years before you get back to some type of normal,” Elam said.

Now, the Commercial Bank building is the picture of normal.

“This building, it cost a pretty penny, but the insurance paid for it all,” Elam said.

Bank employees feel safe inside the walls.

“It’s Styrofoam with concrete down the center. The odds of them being destroyed by a tornado are nil,” Elam said.

It has a large basement that serves as a storm shelter.

Elam said it took time to return to the rhythm of life.

“It’s just now getting back to normal,” Elam said.

Both he and Deputy Chief Lewis said Kentuckians know how to work hard.

“You just have to tie your boots up tight, get your feet on the ground and start moving forward,” Lewis said.

They said it’s not days or months, it’s years. But with everyone’s hearts in western Kentucky, it’s possible.

Elam and Lewis said business and homeowners had to cut through red tape to rebuild. They said many of West Liberty’s buildings were constructed decades ago when permits were different, or nonexistent.

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