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:

West Liberty looks to Kansas town for model of rebuilding ‘green’

August 27, 2012

Looking from the south end of Greensburg, Kan., the view has changed since an EF-5 tornado destroyed the town on May 4, 2007. Greensburg now claims to have the most Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified buildings per capita in the world. Photos by Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle

WEST LIBERTY — Kiowa County, Kan., where Daniel Wallach lives, is very different from Morgan County, Ky. For one thing, it is flat and dry, rather than hilly and green.

But when Wallach came here Tuesday, he saw much that made him feel at home: a conservative, tight-knit community; a town far from a major population center that has struggled economically for years; and people determined against all odds to rebuild after a monster tornado destroyed their beloved home.

The West Liberty Chamber of Commerce brought Wallach to town because he was a key player in the rebirth of Greensburg, Kan., where an EF-5 tornado leveled 95 percent of the town and killed 11 people on May 4, 2007.

Morgan County leaders wanted to hear about Greensburg’s experience and see if some of its strategies could work here, where an EF-3 tornado March 2 devastated much of West Liberty and several rural communities, killing six people.

A week after Greensburg’s tornado, Wallach submitted a paper to his town’s leaders with an intriguing vision: rebuild Greensburg as a cutting-edge, energy-efficient town that not only would save money but attract tourists and worldwide media attention. It would be a living model of a sustainable small town of the future.

Greensburg still struggles, but its “green” strategy has paid off in spades. Tourists, civic leaders and journalists come to Greensburg from around the world to see 13 public buildings and many homes and businesses that were rebuilt with the latest energy-efficient designs and technology.

Greensburg residents who chose to rebuild “green” have seen huge reductions in their utility bills, Wallach said. Annual energy costs for the town’s public buildings are about $200,000 less than they would have been with conventional construction, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“If we had not pursued this strategy,” Wallach said, “I don’t think the town would still be there.”

Wallach heads Greensburg GreenTown, a non-profit that promotes the vision to other communities devastated by disaster. The group is currently assisting Joplin, Mo., where an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011, killed 158 people and left a huge path of destruction.

A week after tornadoes struck Kentucky in March, I wrote a column offering advice from leaders in other disaster-damaged towns across the country. Among them was former Mayor John Janssen of Greensburg, whose experience seemed to offer a good model for West Liberty. Several people in West Liberty thought so, too.

After reading that column, they said, they began looking at Greensburg. They asked Bobby Clark of Lexington-based Midwest Clean Energy Enterprises, a consultant to one of West Liberty’s reconstruction planning groups, to arrange for Wallach to meet with local officials and speak at a public meeting Tuesday that more than 50 people attended.

As I rode to West Liberty with Wallach, Clark and his business partner, Jason Delambre, Wallach explained that Greensburg’s energy- efficient reconstruction strategy faced some opposition at first in the conservative town, where oil and gas exploration is a big part of the economy.

“We had to explain that this was not about tree-hugging, this was about our town’s viability and survival,” he said. “We stayed away from any language that had become politicized.”

Wallach and others who started Greensburg GreenTown promoted the idea as common-sense economics: lower energy costs for homes, businesses and taxpayer-supported government buildings.

But they also talked about faith-based values, such as caring for God’s creation. And they said that if Greensburg could become an international example for other towns, outsiders would have a reason to visit and invest in the community.

Eventually, Wallach said, most of the skeptics got it. Some green-oriented businesses have announced plans to locate plants there, and existing businesses have found new niches. For example, he said, the rebuilt John Deere dealership now has a good side business selling wind turbines throughout Kansas.

Greensburg officials didn’t require anyone to rebuild with energy-efficient design or technology, but it helped the majority who did find expertise and incentives. The few who didn’t now envy their neighbors’ much smaller utility bills, he said.

During our ride to West Liberty, Wallach said he thought the idea of sustainable reconstruction might also get some pushback in West Liberty, a conservative town on the edge of the coalfields. But leaders there were way ahead of him.

Hank Allen, president of Commercial Bank and the West Liberty Chamber of Commerce, said he plans to rebuild his bank using super energy-efficient design and materials as soon as he settles with his insurance company.

Allen also is considering a brilliant idea: adding incubator space onto his Main Street bank building to help small businesses get back on their feet. One of the biggest problems West Liberty faces, he said, is that reconstruction will mean higher rents for businesses that were struggling to stay afloat before the tornado.

“In my mind, we can’t recover until Main Street recovers,” Allen told Wallach. “I’m very optimistic because I know there’s such a desire for the town to come back. I think this is the first step, having you here.”

Allen and several other Morgan County leaders said they were impressed by Greensburg’s example and are organizing a trip there this fall.

Wallach said he sees no reason West Liberty can’t do what Greensburg did — and more — because Morgan County is in a less-remote location and has more natural resources than his area of Kansas.

“All of the elements seem to be here, and they seem really enthused by that,” Wallach said of Morgan County and its leaders. “What Greensburg offers is an example of hope. It’s remarkable what happens when people see for themselves what’s possible.”

Several Morgan County groups are looking at rebuilding strategies with help from experts at Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky. One proposed strategy is called B.E.G.I.N. Again!, the acronym standing for Building, Entrepreneurial, Green, Innovative, Networked-enterprises.

In addition to encouraging energy-efficient reconstruction, the strategy envisions West Liberty using its natural potential for geothermal energy to build a shared system that downtown businesses could tap into.

The plan also offers several ideas for better positioning West Liberty, a former tobacco farming community, in the 21st-century economy. One is capitalizing on nearby Cave Run Lake, the Red River Gorge and hunting and fishing assets to make West Liberty a tourist hub for eco-tourism and outdoor recreation. That would include developing trails and other attractions along the city’s lovely Licking River frontage.

Other ideas include developing a 21st-century model for rural health care using West Liberty’s recently restored hospital; fostering local entrepreneurship; putting a free wireless Internet system downtown, where cellphone coverage is spotty; and trying to develop a world-class data recovery system that could be marketed to companies elsewhere.

Wallach, a Colorado native, thought adventure tourism was an especially good idea. He kept remarking on Morgan County’s natural beauty and its potential for attracting outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen.

State Rep. John Will Stacy said he was impressed by his meeting with Wallach and many of the ideas it sparked. Judge-Executive Tim Conley, who talked with Wallach on Wednesday, was similarly enthusiastic, Clark said.

Meetings are planned this week among West Liberty’s various reconstruction groups to refine ideas and begin setting priorities, Clark said.

As horrible as disasters are, they can provide a clean slate for renewal if leaders seize the opportunity. Wallach stressed that the best hope for small towns such as West Liberty is to create authentic, innovative visions for economic development that will generate excitement and investment from locals and outsiders.

“Everybody loves a comeback story,” he said. “The more innovative you are with the project, the more outside help you’re going to get.”

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.



Other tornado towns offer rebuilding advice

March 11, 2012

Storm damage Tuesday on West Liberty's Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

WEST LIBERTY — Joleen Frederick Phipps, the Morgan County attorney, stood on the sidewalk clutching one of her few possessions that wasn’t smashed or blown away when the tornado ripped through her hometown.

The figurine had been a gift from her late sister-in-law, and she had just found it unharmed in the rubble of her office, across Main Street from the shattered courthouse and not far from her demolished home.

“We’re all still in shock,” Phipps said. “Our town was struggling before this. These little businesses along Main Street were barely making it. But this is a close county; everybody here cares. We will come back.”

As Phipps spoke Tuesday, four days after the tornado, she was surrounded by workers installing new power lines and shoveling debris off roofs and sidewalks. She and other leaders of storm-ravaged Kentucky communities were grappling with citizens’ immediate needs and only beginning to think about the long and difficult process of rebuilding.

How do you recover? How does a town rebuild? For some advice, I called people who have been focused on that since tornadoes devastated Joplin, Mo., on May 22; Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27; and Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007.

While many disaster-relief issues are obvious, don’t forget to pay special attention to the care of elderly people, said Robin Edgeworth, a leader of Tuscaloosa city government’s response and recovery effort. Some elderly people there died weeks and even months after the storm because they didn’t recover from the stress.

Edgeworth said it is vital to have good and constant communication with citizens, including social media, so they are informed and have a voice in decisions. (Tuscaloosa’s recovery public relations effort is led by a Lexington native, Meredith Lynch, daughter of Fayette Circuit Court Clerk Wilma Lynch.)

Expect to fight with insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “If something doesn’t sound right, challenge them,” Edgeworth said.

Officials in all three places said that once immediate needs for food, shelter and essential services are met, everyone should pause and think things through carefully before starting significant reconstruction.

The natural impulse for individuals and families is to try to return things to “normal” quickly, but that can lead to hasty decisions they will later regret.

“The thing is to get a trusted friend or relative who wasn’t there when it happened to help make some of those choices,” said John Janssen, who was Greensburg’s City Council president when the tornado killed 11 people and demolished the town. He then served a term as mayor.

Choose contractors carefully, and don’t pay in advance. “Don’t give your insurance check to anybody,” he cautioned. “The bottom- feeders all show up in situations like this. They will say they’ll put you back in a house right away, and then they take your check and run.”

Edgeworth said anyone who experienced loss in the tornado should register with FEMA, whether or not they were insured or think they might qualify for benefits.

“If there’s ever a federal allocation of money, that’s what they base it on,” she said. “If you haven’t registered, you’re not going to get your share of the money. It’s that simple.”

Thinking things through before making major reconstruction decisions is even more important for communities, officials said. That is why, nearly a year after their tornadoes, Tuscaloosa and Joplin are still working on their long-term plans.

“Our community leadership has been very intentional about planning for a long-term rebuilding effort,” said Kate Massey, an official with Rebuild Joplin, which is coordinating public and private recovery efforts in the southwest Missouri city, where the tornado killed 162 people and destroyed 8,000 homes and 450 businesses.

Joplin created a citizens advisory recovery team and has held many public meetings about reconstruction. “If there’s a process like that, it’s a tremendous way for everyone to feel that they are part of the effort and their opinions are being heard,” Massey said.

Edgeworth said Tuscaloosa realized it needed tougher building and zoning codes in parts of town where the tornado killed 43 people. That process has been difficult — and still isn’t done. “We’ve had a lot of pushback, that’s for sure,” she said.

Outdated building codes were only one of Greensburg’s problems. Much like West Liberty, Greensburg is a small county seat far from a major city. The town has struggled economically, and the population of about 1,200 is only three-quarters what it was a decade ago.

“There was a lot of pressure in our community to just slap it back together like it was before the storm,” Janssen said. “I was pretty vocal about if that’s what they really wanted, we would order plywood for Main Street while we were at it because we were going to be boarding up more buildings.”

A citizens group called Greensburg Green Town started working to convince residents that new buildings needed not to be stronger and safer, but much more energy-efficient. Since then, Greensburg has attracted national attention for embracing some of the most modern, environmentally friendly building practices. That was no small feat in conservative, rural Kansas.

“We said this is not a liberal/conservative kind of deal; it’s purely economic,” Janssen said. “It costs more upfront, but all that investment comes back to you after a very short period of time and makes your house much more affordable.”

Most rebuilt structures now have heavy insulation and high-efficiency windows. And many new homes, such as Janssen’s, have insulated concrete form walls and geothermal heating and cooling that are saving residents a fortune.

Now that the economy is improving, Greensburg’s reputation is attracting attention from economic development prospects. Janssen said a “green-type” manufacturing company recently expressed interest in building a facility in the town’s industrial park. It also was attracted by the work ethic of people with enough grit and determination to rebuild their town from scratch.

“I think the key is to take a deep breath and look at where you want your town to be 30, 40, 50 years down the road,” Janssen said. “If you were already boarding up Main Street before the tornado, don’t count on not boarding it up after the tornado unless you do something right.”