Town takes ‘time to grieve the losses’
By Taylor Moak
WEST LIBERTY, Ky. — The last text Doris Shuck received before the tornado hit on Friday was at 5:58 p.m. It was from her 19-year-old son, Austin, and read, “Mom, take cover.”
Shuck, a pharmacy technician and director for retail company Thirty-One, hurried to the basement of her home. She used a chair for protection as the winds swept over the hill in front of her house.
At 6:04 p.m., her mother texted her, “Are you OK?”
And at that time, Shuck emerged with scrapes and bruises to find her house completely blown away.
“It had gone through that fast,” Shuck said, watching as her family picked the hillside for any salvageable belongings on Saturday afternoon.
A fire truck from across the road had blown through the home, said Anita Chaffin, Shuck’s sister. Over the hill, debris from the home now rested on top of the truck.
After finding her home destroyed, Shuck said she was taken to the hospital, which is less than a quarter mile from her home, by volunteer firefighters.
That was where her husband, Richard, found her. People at the hospital heard him yelling her name while he searched for her in the rubble.
Richard Shuck and their daughter, Lindsey, had waited out the storm in a friend’s basement. Austin Shuck, a sophomore at Morehead State University, was at school when it hit.
Doris Shuck said the losses were hard for 11-year-old Lindsey. Austin Shuck hadn’t seen the damage yet.
She had taken her laptop, an iPod and her phone with her to the basement, and that was what she walked out with. She said the family had found some CDs with photos on them and were searching for an external hard drive.
Chaffin said Shuck had volunteered after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It’s a lot easier being on the other end of this,” Shuck said.
Looking at downtown
Sarah Fannin stood at a vantage point on the hill by the hospital where Shuck was taken, looking down at what was left of West Liberty. Most buildings downtown had been destroyed or badly damaged by the tornado.
“We love our little town,” she said.
Fannin is UK’s extension agent for agriculture in Morgan County, where West Liberty is located.
She pointed out what was left of the extension agency, which lost half its roof. She said she could see the blinds blowing out of her office window.
But, even though the office was destroyed, Fannin said it’s hard to be concerned when standing with someone who lost a home.
When UK dismissed all university employees at 3 p.m. Friday, Fannin said she thought the weather might be bad and headed home after leaving work.
Other businesses, though, did not close, and many people were in town since it was the beginning of the month and they had just received income checks. She said town was crowded at the time the storm struck.
Officials had not released the number of known deaths as of late Sunday.
Only emergency personnel were allowed into downtown while house-to-house search and rescue was performed over the weekend, according to the Kentucky State Police post in Morehead.
“We’ve not been allowing general public in since (Friday) night,” said Sgt. Greg Watts, a fish and wildlife conservation officer who was working a checkpoint into the city Saturday.
Many people were visibly upset about not being allowed into town to check on family, friends or businesses, but Watts said it was to prevent confusion during the rescue effort.
He said officials are worried about volunteers turning into victims because of unsafe conditions inside the town. Disasters like these call for different measures, Watts said.
As of Sunday afternoon, Kentucky’s total death toll was 21 people, and more than 300 were injured in Friday’s storms, state officials say.
Morgan County had been hit by a different storm earlier in the week, Fannin said, which had produced a smaller tornado.
“It’s a leap year, so I figured it wouldn’t happen for another four years,” she said. “Never dreamed it would be another couple of days.”
She said the extension agency had been helping farmers who had been affected by the earlier storms, but Friday’s storm would limit the agency’s ability to help.
“Now, we aren’t going to be able to do what we normally help out with,” she said.
Of the six people who work in the extension agency, Fannin said four had been accounted for.
“Not being able to contact them,” she said, “you just don’t know.”
She said two people from her church, Woodsbend Church, are believed to be two of the state’s casualties after Friday’s storms.
Fannin said the town would do what it needed to get back on its feet.
“We’ll take time to grieve the losses and hopefully start rebuilding,” she said.
Blake McCowan is a first-year pharmacy student at UK. A native of West Liberty, he said he returned home late Friday to check on everyone.
McCowan lives about a mile outside of town and said he had to walk part of the way home because the storm had left debris behind. His house had some trees down, but for the most part was OK.
After driving around on Friday night, he said he could tell West Liberty was a different story.
“We knew it was bad,” McCowan said, “but we didn’t know it was this bad.”
He said no news was certain about West Liberty, as most information was transferred by word of mouth.
“As far as what’s going on in town, it’s all rumor.”