West Liberty’s tornado recovery plan a model for other towns

May 11, 2013

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Morgan County’s strategic plan for rebuilding from a March 2012 tornado includes encouraging super energy-efficient construction of new homes and commercial buildings to lower operating costs. Habitat for Humanity has already built several such homes in Morgan and neighboring Rowan counties. This one was under construction in January. Photo by Tom Eblen


Each time I have visited West Liberty since the devastating tornado, people have expressed determination to rebuild. But they didn’t just want to put things back the way they were; they wanted to use the disaster to reposition their community for the future.

The Morgan County seat had been hurting for years before the twister, which killed six people on March 2, 2012. West Liberty was like so many other small towns that have struggled to adapt to the loss of cash crops and factories.

Last week, after more than a year of study and work, West Liberty leaders unveiled a new strategic plan for their community. It is a creative, forward-looking plan designed to attract national attention and support. If successful, it could serve as a model for struggling small towns throughout Kentucky and across America. (Click here to download a copy of the plan.)

“I’m very excited about it,” said Hank Allen, CEO of Commercial Bank in West Liberty and president of the Morgan County Chamber of Commerce. “There is such a will to rebuild, to not only get back to where we were but to be better than we were.”

One key aspect of the plan follows the lead of Greensburg, Kansas, which was wiped out by a 2007 tornado and attracted national attention by rebuilding using the latest energy-efficient technology.

West Liberty’s energy-efficient reconstruction plans include replacement houses with “passive” design and construction, which can cut energy costs as much as 70 percent over conventional construction. Habitat for Humanity has already built several such homes in the area.

The downtown business district also would be rebuilt using energy-efficient construction, including a geothermal loop that many buildings could share to lower their heating and cooling costs.

Allen says he thinks that will be one of the biggest factors in recreating a viable downtown. Rent was cheap in the old buildings the tornado blew away. But reconstruction will be expensive, pushing rents beyond what many mom-and-pop businesses can afford.

Commercial Bank is kicking off the geothermal loop as part of its headquarters reconstruction. Allen said designs are almost complete for a new bank building that should be certified LEED Gold. The pre-tornado bank building cost about $4,000 to $5,000 a month to heat and cool, but Allen estimates the new one will cost about $1,500 a month.

The bank building will include about 1,800 square feet of incubator space on its first floor to help small local businesses get back on their feet, Allen said.

The strategic plan also calls for encouraging downtown to be rebuilt with mixed-use structures housing businesses, offices, restaurants and apartments. That would create a more lively downtown with lower rents because of more efficient use of space.

Plans also call for installing free wireless service downtown to attract businesses and people in a region where wi-fi availability is now limited.

The strategic plan’s economic development initiatives have a big focus on eco-tourism, built around Morgan County’s natural beauty and local assets such as the Licking River, Cave Run and Paintsville lakes, and nearby destinations such as the Red River Gorge.

There would be encouragement for entrepreneurs to start businesses focusing on kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, fishing and hunting. Plans also call for developing walking and biking trails along the Licking River through West Liberty.

Other economic development ideas in the plan also focus on existing strengths, such as trying to use the local ambulance service and hospital to develop new methods for rural health-care delivery.

The strategic plan grew out of a partnership among the city, Morgan County, local businesses, Morehead State University’s Innovation and Commercialization Center and the nonprofit Regional Technology and Innovation Center.

Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise LLC of Lexington was a consultant on the process. Jonathan Miller, a clean-energy advocate and former state treasurer, has been retained to help raise money nationally for the effort by promoting it as a model for small-town revitalization.

The Morgan County Community Fund, an affiliate of the Blue Grass Community Foundation, has been set up to help collect and distribute donations for the rebuilding effort.

These efforts got a big jump-start in February, when Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced a package of about $30 million in federal, state and private money for various rebuilding projects.

“That really opened people’s eyes to what is possible,” Allen said of the financial package. “As a community, we must think really, really large. But we have a long way to go.”

Habitat needs volunteer builders for Morgan, Menifee reconstruction

January 29, 2013

Greg Dike, right, executive director of the Morehead Area Habitat for Humanity group, helps build an interior wall for a house near Morehead with a group of volunteers from Lexington on Jan. 19.  Photos by Tom Eblen


MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity’s Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.

A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.

“When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area,” said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.

Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.

Morehead Area Habitat’s most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.

So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.

Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.

“They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing,” Dike said.

Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.

Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.

Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.

The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.

“I think there are a lot of people out there with skills,” Dike said. “We’re not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense.”

Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at buildwestliberty@gmail.com or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.

“It’s an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day,” James said. “Most people have really enjoyed it.”

That’s certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.

“I just love doing it,” said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.

“It’s fun, and I’ve learned so much,” Burns said. “I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn’t have time for that.”

Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work. “Plus, it helps make a difference in people’s lives,” Seithers said. “This is something I can do, so I’m doing it.”

Click on each photo to enlarge and read caption:

Checking in on West Liberty’s tornado recovery

May 19, 2012

Donna Pelfrey, the Morgan County Circuit Court clerk, moved her office to a room in a Morehead State University extension campus building outside West Liberty. She expects to be there for at least two years. Photos by Tom Eblen


WEST LIBERTY — I first met Donna Pelfrey, the Morgan County Circuit Court clerk, on March 6. She was standing in a debris-strewn street outside her demolished office, having just gotten a hug from Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr.

A tornado had blown through town four evenings earlier, killing six people and demolishing everything in its path.

Pelfrey and state Administrative Office of the Courts employees had made their way into town the day after the storm to secure records in the office vault. When I met them, they were moving them to a temporary courthouse just outside town.

Pelfrey has been clerk for a dozen years and was deputy clerk for 24 years before that. Now, faced with the biggest disaster to ever strike her hometown, she was scrambling to help restore order. It was a family affair: her husband, Rick Pelfrey, outside plant manager for Mountain Telephone, was working night and day to restore cell-phone and land-line service to the county.

I returned last week, 75 days after the tornado, to see how recovery efforts were going. I figured Donna Pelfrey would be a good person to ask.

I found her in the temporary courthouse, a Morehead State University extension campus classroom building. It is in the nearby community of Index, which has become the new nerve center of a Morgan County on the mend.

The building’s auditorium is both a makeshift courtroom and church, depending on the day of the week. Various agencies and businesses are upstairs and in the Regional Enterprise Center next door. West Liberty Elementary School is in a former industrial building at the top of the hill.

Pelphrey and her six assistants work in a big, windowless room of the MSU building, where they expect to be for at least two years. A new judicial center was being built next to the century-old courthouse where they worked when the tornado hit. Work is stalled while structural engineers assess the damage.

Much of the past 75 days has been a blur, Pelfrey said. She considers herself lucky: Her immediate family was unhurt, and her home was only slightly damaged. Still, the tornado killed a cousin and a woman she had worked with for 25 years. Her sister’s home was demolished. “That kind of stuff has been hard to deal with,” she said.

Pelfrey hears a lot from people who come into the clerk’s office every day. “What I hear more than anything is people having insurance trouble,” she said. “They’re fussing about their insurance, and adjusters, and they can’t get what they need.”

Some still seem traumatized. “They have a lot of stories to tell,” she said.

They talk of having impulsively taken shelter in a certain corner of their home — the only corner left standing when their house collapsed. Then there was the woman who, seeing the tornado coming, tried to take shelter in the Family Dollar store. The door was locked, so she clutched the rails of the shopping cart corral as hard as she could to keep from being blown away.

Only once in our conversation did Pelfrey come close to tears. That was when she recalled all of the strangers who have poured into West Liberty since May 2 to help clean up, or who have sent clothing and supplies for her neighbors in need.

“When you saw church buses and truckloads of people volunteering their time, that was the most surprising thing,” she said. A roofing company from another town went from house to house, putting tarps on damaged roofs for free.

Pelfrey said she hasn’t heard any reports of scam artist repairmen who often show up in towns after disasters. She said she knows of only two or three people who were charged with looting.

Cleanup and reconstruction have put a lot of people back to work, but the future remains uncertain. Pelfrey says she thinks it will be at least two years before West Liberty returns to anything approaching normal.

The restoration of Salyer Cemetery, where monuments were flattened, has boosted people’s spirits, she said. The pizza restaurant is supposed to reopen this week, and there is a sign on Main Street saying the Chinese restaurant will return soon.

There’s no word yet on the fate of Freezer Fresh Dairy, which for years was West Liberty’s most popular hangout. There are doubts about whether some downtown businesses, which were struggling before the storm, will ever come back.

After weeks of waiting for insurance settlements, demolition and reconstruction work is now under way along Main Street, which makes Pelfrey’s daily commute through town a little more encouraging.

“Every time you see something come back, it lifts your spirits,” she said.

Kentucky Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. comforts Morgan Circuit Court Clerk Donna Pelfrey on March 6 in tornado-damaged  West Liberty. Behind Minton is Justice Will T. Scott. Both the unfinished new justice center at left and the county courthouse where Pelfrey’s office was located were heavily damaged.

Like most buildings on West Liberty’s Main Street, this one is “closed for renovation” as residents work to recover from a March 2 tornado that devastated the Morgan County seat.

A makeshift flag pole decorates remains of the new Morgan County Judicial Center, which was under construction in downtown West Liberty when a March 2 tornado swept through.

Several downtown buildings in West Liberty are being demolished two months after a March 2 tornado devasted the town. Here, a bulldozer works behind some Main Street buildings.

A former attorney’s office across from the old Morgan County Courthouse suffered extensive damage in the March 2 tornado. The rear of the building has been demolished since then.

The century-old Morgan County Courthouse suffered extensive damage in the March 2 tornado, but County Clerk Donna Pelphry said officials hope to renovate the structure for another use.  The building is shown here May 16.

Morgan County’s historic plaque, knocked off its post by the March 2 tornado that devastated West Liberty, sits propped up on the remains of a World War I monument. The county’s old courthouse is to the left. The new judicial center, which was under construction when the tornado hit, is to the right. Both buildings were heavily damaged.

Workmen begin extensive repairs to the second story of a commercial building on Main Street in West Liberty on May 16.