‘The storm defined us’
By Jeff Noble
Exactly a year after a deadly tornado tore through the Laurel County community of East Bernstadt, it was snowing outside.
It was in stark contrast to the fury and devastation that pierced the Friday night sky of March 2, 2012.
And last Saturday evening, the community and county came together to remember those six people who perished in the tornado, and to say a heartfelt “Thank You” to those who responded when East Bernstadt needed them most.
A crowd of more than 100 persons came to the special service, called “Rebuilding Hope,” that was held at the First Baptist Church of East Bernstadt. A comforting piano solo greeted those who came in from the snow and cold, and as neighbors and community warmly greeted each other, they sat down to listen, to look, to pray, and to heal.
“You were the first people who started the healing process. Because of you, the community came together,” the church’s senior pastor, Brother Norm Brock told first responders in the crowd.
That group included volunteer fire fighters, law enforcement officers, emergency medical service personnel, and others connected to serving in the line of duty when the tornado touched down.
When Brock asked members of the East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department to stand up, there was thunderous applause. Another round of applause came for members of the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department, who were also recognized. And he especially thanked those in the community from all walks of life who volunteered their time and talents to rebuild and recover.
There was singing by the church’s “Worship Team” headed by worship pastor Glenn Toney. Before that, he spoke to the audience.
“As we look back and remember, we must look back at our loss. Let’s pray together. … We remember the sirens, those who came together and we remember the hurt. … And how hard it is to recover. … God, in our worst times, you send us good people to serve, and we look to you.”
Toney and the worship team sang, an upbeat Contemporary Christian song called “Your Grace Is Enough.” The six members encouraged those inside the church to lift their eyes to the large projection screen, to utter the lyrics that came up on the screen, and fill their voices — and hearts — with the song’s message.
It was an uplifting, encouraging moment.
Laurel County Judge-Executive David Westerfield told the audience that being together at the service reminded him of what happened a year ago when the community responded.
“You all were there there to help restore their faith, and to help restore hope. You would do it again today. You served with asking for anything. That means a lot. It means a lot to those people who were suffering. It’s been one year today. We’re still rebuilding and reorganizing, and it’s not easy. But we have people here who want to give, and give all. It’s a gift from God, and a gift from the heart. Never forget what a community we have, and never forget your neighbors. Don’t ever let that leave your heart,” he said.
After Westerfield spoke, a video was shown on the projection screen. Scenes of the destruction, the rebuilding and the healing appeared for the next seven to eight minutes. With music playing as the devastation gave way to recovery, those in the church reacted with high intensity.
Some nodded their heads as they recalled a neighbor’s home destroyed. Some wept. All of them remembered.
After the video, Laurel County Sheriff John Root came to the podium. He began by recognizing two groups who played a major role in the community’s rescue and recovery — the East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department and the First Baptist Church of East Bernstadt.
“They had a command center, an animal shelter, a place to eat. It was a gathering place. You guys just did an outstanding job,” Root said as they stood up and accepted the crowd’s applause.
When the church was singled out, he added, “I tell you, folks, Walmart ain’t got nothing on you. They fed you, they clothed you, you could come in, get a hug and a prayer. We owe this church a lot.”
Root closed by quoting a Bible verse from John 16:33, and added, “I completely understand. The moral is, don’t question this tragedy. But if it ever happens again, I would want to have the same people who stood by me (on the night of the tornado).”
Brock reminded the audience that all of them had memories of March 2, 2012.
“You have memories of that night. All of us can tell you where we were. It’s incredible how a storm can leave a mark on our lives. Life has a way of leaving a storm in your life. The storm defined us.”
He later asked them to pray to remember those who lost their lives, and those who lost everything. In his prayer, Brock asked “that we not be marked by the storm, but by the hope that comes.”
After the prayer, he finished by saying, “It’s impossible to say ‘Thank You’ to everybody who helped, but, ‘Thank You.’”
The service ended with a piano playing. At the keys was Gary Adamson, who played and sang a song called “I Need You.” Brock invited everyone for a meal next door at the church’s Christian Life Center, and after blessing the food the crowd went to eat.
Shaking hands with church members, Brock greeted Phillip Jackson, Jr. and his father Phillip.
Father and son both hugged the pastor.
“Phillip Jr. lives on Whitaker Lane, near Arthur Ridge Road. His home was completely blown away. His brother Jason was inside, but he survived. Phillip Jr. had a trailer and it was gone, so we and other church groups helped to build him a new house,” Brock noted.
“I appreciate what you all did,” said his dad, Phillip Jackson.
At the dinner, Phillip Jr. and his sister, Michelle Durham spoke about the service.
“It means people helping each other, and that’s great,” he noted.
“It’s been a difficult year. We’re just thankful to be here. People are wonderful,” Durham added as she held back tears.
Before leaving, his dad spoke. “Words just can’t describe it. This church has done so much to help build my son a house. At one time, there were 32 people over three days helping to build his house. Tonight was a show of support. This church is a backbone of the community.”
Judy Nicholson remembered the past year and stated the service brought everyone in the community back together.
“At first, you do feel hopeless after the tragedy. But you do take care of people and help them get back on their feet. Tonight was our way of saying we haven’t forgotten. This reinforces the fact that we took care of each other. And we didn’t forget,” said Nicholson, the executive director of the United Way of Laurel County.
Between bites of pulled pork and greeting folks, “Brother Brock” summed up the significance of the special service.
“It’s not only to remember those who died, but those who served and helped together. I’ve talked to several people who rebuilt their homes, or moved to new places and they’re rebounding well. You see the sheer devastation on people’s faces then, and tonight you remember that look of loss that night a year ago. Now you see their faces the look of hope.”
A year later, recovery and remembering continue
By Jeff Noble
A year after the tornado in East Bernstadt forever changed the lives of many Laurel Countians, a lot has been done to rebuild the areas damaged. But for some, the damage remains in their memories.
Coy Pritchard noted it’s not going to be the same.
“Recovery is not a sprint. It’s more of a walk, a marathon. It takes time to get there. There’s going to be a lot of pain and suffering for those who lost loved ones, or were injured, or lost their homes or belongings,” said Pritchard, of the American Red Cross’ Southeastern Kentucky Chapter, based in London.
During a phone interview Friday, Pritchard pointed out long after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, it took the region over five years to get back to normal.
Albert “Abby” Hale agreed. The Emergency Management director for Laurel County saw the damage first-hand that horrible Friday night, and followed up on the recovery for months.
“It’s a healing process that will take forever. But in all respect, it looks like people have gotten on with their lives, and had their homes replaced or repaired, or both.”
Hale was on KY 80 West, driving towards the Laurel-Pulaski county line, when his pager went off.
“When I was driving west on 80, the storm was going towards the county line. There was some wind, bad lightning and rain, but I didn’t get caught in it. It was on the northeast side of West 80, and that was the side I was on. When I turned and went back towards London, the storm beat me,” he said Friday in a phone interview.
In London, Pritchard was preparing for the worst.
The Southeastern Kentucky Chapter covers six counties, including the Tri County region. Watching the severe storms unfold before him, he wondered where to set up relief crews.
“I was watching my computer and TV, tracking the storms. I had my list of shelters out and at the time, I was ready to zero in on Corbin, because one storm was headed that way. Part of the storm did hit Corbin with straight-line winds, but the bulk of the system hit Rockcastle County and north and west Laurel County. That eventually was the storm that produced the tornado.”
Hale, meanwhile, heard the page that the same storm Pritchard was watching at home brought a tornado. It touched down first on the west side of Wood Creek Lake, and was on the ground.
“When I heard the tornado hit, I went to Bentley Road. The road was blocked and there were people trying to cut trees down. I got out of my vehicle and was making my way to help out, when I got the call from dispatch about a house blown over a cliff on Little Arthur Ridge Road. So I went there.”
Six persons perished as a result of the tornado. In a March 5, 2012 Times-Tribune story, Hale said at the time some 44 persons were taken by ambulance to Saint Joseph-London hospital for treatment of their injuries. There were also others who went to the hospital on their own, or were taken by someone else.
According to the National Weather Service in Jackson, the tornado was on the ground for about seven minutes, traveling 6.3 miles with winds clocked around 125 miles per hour. It left a 310 yard-wide path of destruction.
Laurel County Judge-Executive David Westerfield estimated the damage done was around $12 million.
In a story he wrote few days later, Times-Tribune publisher Willie Sawyers said Hale told him, “It was the worst tragedy to ever hit Laurel County.”
Help came quickly, with hordes of volunteers from other states and inside Kentucky. But Pritchard pointed out the biggest asset in recovering came from right at home.
“Rebuilding-wise, it’s the community itself that got back on its feet. East Bernstadt’s a close-knit community. People in Kentucky take care of each other and you saw that at its very best there in East Bernstadt. The community itself continues to rebuild. They didn’t wait for the federal government for help. It was neighbors helping neighbors. When I met with other Red Cross personnel, I told them the Judge-Executive was out there building porches with the volunteers. That shows leadership.”
“The businesses and contractors of Laurel County need to be applauded. They came to our aid when we needed them and they came together, free of charge. When I called them when we needed help, no one denied us. They stepped up to the plate and put us back together,” Westerfield said Thursday in a phone interview.
The churches joined in to help, as did other charitable organizations. The Red Cross was there, too. While they responded to the disaster Friday night, Pritchard noted a team of two Red Cross members came down two days later.
“The national Red Cross sent a mental health team, what’s called a ‘Rapid Response Team.’ As it turned out the two people were counselors, who came to talk to and counsel the many first-responders who were at the scene. They stayed for two weeks. I found that fascinating. It showed they were as concerned with first-responders as they were a homeowner or a business owner.”
FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — also came to assist those affected by the tornado. Westerfield said FEMA did not disclose the amount of funding to help with the recovery to him, but worked with many home and property owners.
“We’ve been reimbursed a small amount so far. They’ve worked well with us, but they’re slow about reimbursing us.”
“From what I’ve heard, most of the people were satisfied. Most of them have been helped by FEMA. I’ve heard no negative feedback about FEMA,” said Hale.
County officials say the cleanup of the tornado damage is completed, with around $900,000 spent. Some 95 percent of those businesses that suffered damage have reopened, and the majority of residents did rebuild and have moved back into the areas affected.
Westerfield stated the county is ready if another tornado should happen again.
“Yes, we’re prepared now, and we were prepared then. From the state on down, we have an alerting system through dispatch in which we can circle an area and call people at their cell phones and home phones to warn them in minutes.”
He added the county applied for hazard mitigation money from FEMA which would be used for building storm shelters across the area. Some of the funding would also go towards buying tornado warning sirens to be placed throughout Laurel County, adding the cost of the tornado sirens are $21,000 each.
“We’ve applied with FEMA for the mitigation money, but we haven’t been told yet if we’ve gotten it,” added Westerfield.
In discussing the events of last March 2, Pritchard said even with all the improvements and preparation, people themselves have to make the final decision when a severe weather event such as a tornado strikes.
“They have to realize it could happen to them, and they do need to be prepared. It’s so unpredictable. You never know.”
Despite direct hit, one business carried on
By Jeff Noble
Driving up Fields Lane off U.S. 25 north of London, the building that houses Visone RV looks normal to the naked eye.
It’s business as usual at the big facility, which sells RV, or Recreational Vehicle parts and does service work on campers and buses.
But the business has been rebuilt — a direct result of the direct hit the company took from the tornado on Friday, March 2, 2012.
“We did indeed take a direct hit. All our offices and all of our new motor homes and RV’s. I came out here Friday night, and it was non-passable. There was no way for the employees to get back here until the next morning, Saturday,” said sales manager Terry Reece.
There was no one inside the building when the tornado hit.
In an interview Tuesday at the business, Reece pointed out the employees were sent home early because of the threat of severe weather that day.
“We left about 5:30 p.m., and the storm hit about 7:30 p.m. The owner, Terry Blankenship, was home at the time. We usually close at 6 o’clock, but because of all the warnings we closed early and went home.”
That included the businesses’ mascot, Buddy the Dog. According to a family friend, Mark Jones, the Mixed Pug and Rat Terrier was over at the owner’s house when the tornado came through.
Jones added that on that day, he could tell Buddy wasn’t quite himself.
“Buddy could tell that something was gonna happen that afternoon. I’ve heard animals have a sixth sense. Buddy does have a sixth sense.”
The next day, the cleanup began to get back in business. Reece took a look at what had to be done, and also took a good look at what the tornado had done to the big facility.
He said it was not good.
“When I saw the damage the next day, it was a humbling experience. The tornado picked up motor homes here. There were 35,000 pound to 45,000 pound motor homes that were swept up and slammed down to the ground.”
These days, there are two pictures inside the sales office.
One is from about eight years ago, and shows an aerial view of Visione RV in pristine condition, with a sparkling main building and rows of RV’s and motor homes in the parking lot.
The other picture — also an aerial photo — shows the scope of the destruction done by the tornado’s direct hit. The roof is gone, with exposed beams falling down to the foundation of the main building. In the parking lot, many of the motor homes, RV’s and buses are completely destroyed, heavily damaged, or scattered like matchsticks. The lush green trees shown in the earlier picture are wiped out. In their place were downed trees, barren with the leaves and replaced by debris.
“We had millions of dollars in damage. The building was insured,” Reece said.
A lot of the company’s business comes online, and Visone RV has a very active website. Calling themselves “The number one RV dismantler in the United States,” they got together to first and foremost get back on the Internet.
Fortunately, there was house nearby that wasn’t touched by the tornado.
“There was an old house near the big building that didn’t get a scratch. We took our computers and hard drives out of the damaged main building, dug ‘em out, and set up shop in the old house,” noted Jones.
Reece said a bulldozer cleared the debris from the road to the business, and employees pitched in. Within a couple of days, they were back up on the Internet and back in business, adding that March of last year was one of their best ever online.
“Our workers stayed with us throughout it all. We had a lot of people from here and from out-of-state to help volunteer with the cleanup. While we rebuilt, we had people who came out and brought us lunch, brought water, brought backhoes, had kids pick up garbage, insulation, you name it. They helped us stay in business, which we could have stopped, shut down or opened up later. If it wasn’t for the group of people working seven days a week, we wouldn’t have made it.”
A year later, Reece said the community affected by last March’s tornado is still struggling, especially those who are elderly, noting “It will take a while for them to recover.”
As for Visone RV, he pointed out the business is running full-steam ahead. Reece said the cleanup work on the property isn’t quite finished, but they should be back up to full strength by late this summer.
And what about “Buddy” the Dog? He was inside the building, taking a nap. Jones said Buddy survived the tornado as well.
“He got disoriented for days after the storm, but he’s okay now. He’s still the boss.”