The town was on edge as Howard B. Elam went home early on the first Friday in March 2012. His bank, Commercial Bank in West Liberty, Ky., usually stayed open until 6 p.m. on Fridays, but two days earlier, a small tornado had passed through the outskirts of the Morgan County seat, damaging a small shopping center and taking out trees on Elam’s property.
“It was about 100 yards from my house,” Elam said when remembering the phone call he’d received from his wife, a nurse at the nearby Morgan County Appalachian Regional Healthcare Hospital. She had asked him to head home to look after their then 14-year-old son, who was home alone. Doing so got him out of the path of an EF3 tornado that stayed on the ground for a 2012 record of 85 miles, according to the National Weather Service.
The tornado, according to the Weather Channel, packed winds of 140 miles per hour as it took the roof off the hospital where Elam’s wife was working before setting its aim down the hill on downtown West Liberty, home to his bank and the United Methodist Church, where he served as treasurer.
Elam’s seen neither of the buildings intact since.
“I’ve been in a war zone before. I’ve been in Vietnam, and that’s what it looked like,” Elam said from behind the desk of what is now Commercial Bank’s branch in the Index community of Morgan County, two and a half miles down US 460 from the center of town and the former sole location of the 113-year-old bank. “Everything was just chaos — buildings tore up, telephone poles down, trees down, some buildings totally demolished, some not. Just a mess.”
Elam, the bank’s president and member of the board of directors, was told to leave by Hank Allen, the bank’s CEO and chairman, who rode out the storm with an employee and a few people who had taken shelter in the stairwell of the three-story building.
The top floor, leased by Appalachian Regional Healthcare, was gone. The second floor, which housed the bank’s computer systems “was gutted,” according to Elam, as all of the windows were smashed and debris littered what remained of the floor.
Everyone in the building was fine. But the county’s largest bank had taken as severe of a hit as anything else in the city.
“This bank was totally wiped out. We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Elam said.
The city was blockaded by law enforcement and the National Guard, not to mention the debris, which included the steeple of Elam’s church in the middle of the intersection of Main Street and Prestonsburg Road, next to the bank.
Early Saturday morning, after spending the rest of Friday tracking down his family and coworkers, Elam joined Allen and a handful of others in bank management for a short-lived trip to the bank. After entering the city on foot with permission from the guardsmen to enter, a member of the Kentucky State Police ordered them out of the bank.
“We told him we were management of the bank and we were in there protecting the assets of the bank, and two or three of us were directors, board of directors and actually part owners of the bank,” Elam said in recalling a statement that didn’t come close to swaying the police officer. “We had no choice but to get out.”
Fast forward nearly two years and many buildings have been fixed, rebuilt or are under construction in downtown West Liberty. Just about every building and house near the city’s center has the hallmarks of recent work: brand new cinderblock foundations, new siding, a new roof, recently installed gutters. But the wood privacy fence often seen in Lexington’s suburbs is a staple in downtown West Liberty, which looks like the stereotypical hockey player’s mouth. Many of its teeth are missing.
The intersection of Main and Prestonsburg is marked by coming-soon signs, one for the bank and one for the Methodist Church. But Elam, admits he’ll be worshiping on that corner sooner, possibly much sooner, than he’ll be working on it again.
Construction on the church is out to bid, but for the bank that didn’t miss a beat in getting operations up and going again after the tornado, there’s no telling when its planned new building will break ground.
“We’re not sure,” Elam said when asked when work might begin on the site that now houses a trailer for tellers on one side and the final remnants of the 20,000-square-foot building, its vault, which remained intact and has continued to house the customer’s safe deposit boxes.
A dispute with its insurance company has waged on, and the bank felt there was no way to rebuild what remained and get it up to code, Elam said, while their insurance company felt differently.
“We’re conservative by nature, and you don’t want to invest more before you know how much you’re going to get [from an insurance settlement],” he said.
While reconstruction drags, the bank’s employees and others in banking, along with the rest of the Morgan County communities, didn’t in the aftermath of the storm.