By Amelia Orwick| @KyKernel
WEST LIBERTY, Ky. — I arrived in West Liberty, Ky., on Saturday afternoon, greeted by chilling temperatures and dreary skies; appropriate, considering the circumstances.
The day marked one year since an EF-3 tornado swept through the town, carrying away bits and pieces of citizens’ homes and businesses.
The entire tornado outbreak, which affected parts of eastern and southeastern Kentucky, caused 26 fatalities and destroyed more than 450 homes, according to the American Red Cross.
I had hoped that I might get through the entire afternoon without witnessing any tears, but it didn’t take long before I ran into a friend overwhelmed by emotions brought on by the anniversary.
On the way to visit my grandmother, who lives in West Liberty, my cousin and I pulled over when we noticed Doris and Lindsey Shuck standing in the same spot where their home stood one year earlier.
I looked out over the town, which was barely visible through the trees until the storm uprooted them, and stood silent as Lindsey cried in my cousin’s arms.
Suddenly, I was shaken from my dream of a happy celebration of recovery.
Conditions have improved immensely since the storm hit, making the tragedy seem so far away.
But the truth is, I discovered when I looked at Lindsey, that memories of that day and of what existed before, are still close in the minds and hearts of everyone involved.
The people of West Liberty gathered at Morgan County High School on Saturday to grieve together, as well as celebrate the progress that has been made.
At the event, Morgan County Judge Executive Tim Conley presented a proclamation in honor of the tornado victims, which he would go on to sign alongside the mayor.
“Family, friends and neighbors near and far, along with federal, state and local entities, came together to save lives and rebuild Morgan County and West Liberty,” Conley read to a packed room.
“Morgan County and West Liberty thank the world for their love, kindness and generosity.”
Following the speech, guests viewed a documentary about the storm, indulged in good food and enjoyed inspirational song.
Although each individual experienced his or her own tragedy that night, the event focused on the entire populace, past and present.
To close the presentation, members of the community were invited to release “wish lanterns” in remembrance of the lives lost to the storm.
It was at this point that I got to experience the hopeful, happy community that I had wished for.
Igniting the lanterns proved troublesome at first, which provided some comic relief.
And then the sky was set aglow.
I like to believe that as the lanterns floated away, so did some of the emotion that has weighed people down in the year since the storm.
“I feel like our family’s been so blessed, that I don’t let the sad overcome me,” Doris said. “We’ve seen people do so many good things. I have to look at that and realize that a bad situation has really turned into good things, and so many people were able to do good deeds.”
Hard times may not be over for the citizens of West Liberty, but there is certainly a lot to look forward to.
Homes and businesses are slowly returning, and dignitaries broke ground last month on several new projects, including a proposed youth recreation center.
As these structures go up and normalcy returns to the town, the pain people are feeling will slowly subside. And just as quietly as the lanterns floated away in semblance of those lost, innocent babies will be born into the town.
Emotions will not remain as high as they were on Saturday afternoon.
But what happened in West Liberty that evening last March will never be forgotten. If there is one thing I know about the small town, it is that the community would never let anyone forget.
In a small place like Morgan County, history is everywhere you turn. People stay tied not only through their blood, but their experiences.
As I grow older and return to West Liberty, I hope to watch the transformation from a community still pained by their experiences with the storm, to a community reminiscent of that day, but chiefly proud of how far it has come and how the event helped in its shaping.
But for now, I stand with the citizens, the emergency personnel, the volunteers and everyone else involved to show support for the town and people so dear to my heart.