Stories of survival: Finding a new path after the 2012 tornado outbreak

Published: Mar. 2, 2017 at 4:29 PM EST
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It can't happen here:

It was something many in the small community of West Liberty thought would never happen.

"We've always been taught through my lifetime that a tornado wouldn't touch down in the hills like it has," said Stanley Franklin, Morgan Co. Judge Executive.

Five years ago, an EF-3 tornado shredded downtown West Liberty, wiping out everything in its path and killing six people.

West Liberty lost nearly 30% of its tax base. The tornado destroyed hundreds of homes, and it would take millions to pull the town out of the rubble.

"We did lose a lot of businesses there on Main Street. We are continuing to have holes where the buildings were. But we are blessed that we had a lot of businesses decide to come back and then new businesses have come into our community," said Mark Walter, West Liberty Mayor.

You don't have to look far to see the scars the storm left behind, but now, you can also see what's slowly replacing them. New buildings, like the Commercial Bank and a rebuilt historic church, are shiny new reminders of a town moving forward in the wake of a disaster.

"We are a long ways from being perfect, but we are a lot better off than we were in the beginning," said Franklin.

Some 400 homes were either damaged or destroyed, including an entire apartment complex. Workers have since rebuilt that complex and added 20 Habit for Humanity homes that are energy efficient.

"We're strong, we fought back and its that community that has made us what were are today," Mayor Walter added.


Frozen in time:

"It's hard to believe five years has gone by."

To the outside eye, it might be hard to spot tornado damage in West Liberty. Dr. Clifford Smith's chiropractic business is one of the places the F-3 tornado that hit on March 2, 2012, ripped apart. He remembers seeing it.

"When I got up to the corner I could see it coming right over the hospital there, on top of the hill," Dr. Smith said.

Three staff members and some patients rode out the storm in the x-ray room, and Dr. Smith's father who first started the business nearly sixty years ago was upstairs.

"When it took the top of the building off, he said stuff was flying around. It picked him up and threw him into the concrete wall."

Sadly, Dr. Smith lost his father just a week later. But, the clock his father cherished that sat just outside the practice is frozen in time. It stopped at exactly 5:53 about five minutes before the EF3 tornado slammed into West Liberty. It is an eerie reminder of something many in this community thought could never happen here.

"My father always preached that a tornado will never come to this area. He said it would never get down in these mountains."

Dr. Smith says he was able to get his practice back up and running exactly 60 days after the storm.


Everything but their faith:

When the March 2nd tornado hit West Liberty in 2012, it only took seconds to change lives forever. One family says they lost everything that day except their hope and a precious tote.

"This box is full of cards that came to us after the tornado," said Doris Shuck.

Those cards and notes kept Doris Shuck and her family going when they had nothing else. Shuck rode out the EF-3 tornado alone in the basement of her two-story home, praying for her children and husband.

"At the beginning of my prayer, I was praying for them. But I think by the end of it, I felt like I was probably praying the last prayer I would pray," said Shuck.

In those chaotic moments after, Richard Shuck was trying to get to Doris.

"I told them we lived in the white house past the hospital and they said, 'I hate to tell you, but that house is gone.' At the time I thought the worst," said Richard Shuck.

Doris was okay, but the Shuck's lost everything except their faith.

"So we prayed. That's the first thing we did. We gathered as a family and prayed," said Doris Shuck.

In all the debris, they searched for pieces of their lives. They never imagined what they would find.

"I have my son's baby book and my daughter's and just a couple of photo albums and our wedding books."

Those treasured keepsakes were found untouched in two totes in what was left of their basement.

The Shuck's, like so many others, have rebuilt their life while watching their community do the same thing.


Coming back stronger and better:

Commercial Bank sits like an anchor of the business community in downtown West Liberty. The bank was one of the dozens of businesses destroyed in the town. Jim Gazay is the Compliance Officer there.

"It's a good feeling seeing all of this come back. We still got a lot more work to do. I know to some it feels like it's dragging, but it takes at least ten years to come back from something like this," said Gazay.

Five years ago, Gazay was helping manage the aftermath of an EF-3 tornado. The retired military member was asked to serve as incident commander.

"When I walked into that town, and I first looked, I expected to find at least a minimum of 200 dead. We were fortunate a lot of people had left town."

Gazay is one of many who has worked to help West Liberty rebuild bigger and better and move on.

"A lot of people didn't want to dwell on this. They wanted to move on, rebrand ourselves. We didn't want to be branded as the town that had the tornado."

In rebuilding, West Liberty has taken a very progressive approach. The new Commerical Bank building is energy efficient-LEED certified. Geothermal energy is being used to help cut costs.

It's not just businesses, but Habitat Homes have been built greener and more efficient.

"If you are going to build a house for somebody that is low income you need to keep the operational cost at a minimum. So the house behind me its heating and cooling is 20 dollars a month," said Greg Dike, Cave Run Area Habitat for Humanity.

They built 20 Habitat homes for tornado victims. The homes are designed to be super insulated, and a few even have solar panels to generate electricity.

"It's generating more at least for this month it's been running than the heating/cooling system used. So it's more than offsetting the heating and cooling of this house," said Dike.

Gazay and others who have watched this town rise up see tragedy turning into opportunity, a way to make West Liberty a model for the rest of the country.


Signs from afar:

Jimmy and JoAnn Henry have been married 48 years. Life was good.

"We had bought Jimmy's mother's homeplace and remodeled. We loved it. We were set for the rest of our life, we thought," said JoAnn Henry.

On March 2, 2012, JoAnn remembers the calm before the storm, a singing bird.

"It was really loud, like a holler," Henry said. "And I told Jimmy, I believe that bird is trying to tell us to get indoors."

While the Henry's took cover in their basement, an EF-3 tornado was roaring across their home. Surveillance video from the Clinic Pharmacy captured the fury of that tornado ripping apart their house and shredding it to pieces.

"We just barely made it downstairs behind a concrete wall, which saved us really."

The Henry's survived unscathed, but not their home.

"It lifted the house up but sat it back down. Now our neighbor two doors down, it completely took her house," said Jimmy Henry.

Jimmy and JoAnn wasted no time rebuilding. In time, they found bits and pieces of their life scattered about the area. JoAnn salvaged photos, and they kept some of their scarred furniture as reminders of the storm they had weathered. Nearly a 100 miles away, a complete stranger would find something that put the power of that tornado in perspective.

“We got a letter in the mail from a guy in Hurricane, West Virginia and it was our bank statement," said Jimmy Henry.

Jimmy and JoAnn don't spend a lot of time looking back, but in the years since they have relied on each other and a little bit of humor to move past that March day.