Eastern Ky. town turning devastation into innovation

Published: May. 15, 2017 at 3:13 PM EDT
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In March, WKYT revisited West Liberty in Morgan County on its five year anniversary of being hit by a deadly EF-3 tornado.

The community has since been rebuilt cleaner and greener. What West Liberty has done was inspired by Greensburg, Kansas - a city hundreds of miles away that knows what it's like to be hit by a powerful tornado.

"Here is a town that has rebuilt, pulled up their boot straps, and just found a way to rebuild and carry on their life," said Bobby Clark with Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise.

Clark has been a part of the post-disaster recovery in West Liberty that was modeled after Greensburg.

"Destroyed by an EF-5 tornado, only three buildings remained after this tornado and the community decided to build back a green sustainable community. They got a wind farm, they had to build everything from schools to government and homes in the community," said Clark.

Greensburg rebuilt its community with green building construction, using 100 percent renewable energy and using wind farms to keep the lights on.

In West Liberty, that same goal was made part of its master plan to a degree. One of those meeting the challenge, Commercial Bank in downtown, was built green in its design and construction. From the materials used to build it, to a rain garden outside, to the 30 wells drilled for the renewable geothermal heating and cooling system, it's all paying off when it comes to being more sustainable.

"Right now, we are showing a significant savings from our old facility we had before the tornado to approximately 45 percent in ... utility bills right now," said Jim Gazay with Commercial Bank.

"Even though we are in the foothills of coal country, it was not outrageous for us to look at energy efficiency and renewable energy as one of the pathways to helping this community transform," said Clark.

Through the West Liberty Energy Efficiency Education Dashboard project, Bobby Clark is helping people think about their footprint on the environment.

A dashboard, paid for through grant money, monitors energy used in the bank and is on display for the public to see. Linked to the dashboard are four units at an apartment complex nearby and two homes built by Habitat for Humanity. Chris Grone is one of those homeowners.

"It's been a Godsend to us, before we lived in a house about 85 years old," said Grone.

Grone and his wife moved into a Habitat Home after the tornado, and admit at times paying their bills was tough. This past January, they were selected through the dashboard project to have solar panels installed on their house.

"Even on a cloudy day, during the winter and snowstorm that is still producing," said Grone.

The Grones showed us their first electric bill; the total amount was $13.01 and they actually gave energy back to the grid.

"It was designed to be net zero, so hopefully after a full year of operations, the actual homeowner will not have to pay any net energy bill," said Clark.

It's a major step in what some hope is the future for places like eastern Kentucky and cities like West Liberty looking to take devastation and turn it into innovation.

There is also an education component for students in Morgan County as part of this project. Six teachers have been trained to help teach sustainable lessons and encourage students to think about being greener.

One thing West Liberty project leaders were impressed by was seeing the way Greensburg became a tourist destination for people seeking out more on its rebranding and rebuilding green initiative.

West Liberty will celebrate Commercial Bank and hold a LEED Plaque Ceremony at 11 a.m. on June 20. The public, community leaders, and public figures are asked to attend and tour what has been done there.