What if it had been Frankfort? What if a funnel cloud had lifted off the Capitol dome and deposited it in Lawrenceburg? What if our lively downtown was destroyed, our homes smashed, and our belongings strewn across the bluegrass?
To add to our grief, what if we all knew someone who’d died in the storm?
If that had happened to us, as it did to West Liberty – an entire community leveled by the March 2 tornadoes – I would hope that the state of Kentucky would drop what it was doing to come to our aid. I would hope that guys would postpone their fishing trips and ladies would hold off on their gardening to help us rebuild.
The 3,500 residents of West Liberty are grateful for the steady flow of volunteers to their town nestled in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. It’s a mere two hours from Frankfort.
As I was there Saturday volunteering with a group of friends, Kathy Walter came out of her parents’ damaged home with diet caffeine free Pepsi and diet Canada Dry.
Looters had taken the good stuff.
“I would bring you water, but they stole all of that,” she apologized, explaining that the thieves came on the heels of the tornadoes. Her husband, Mark, found them camped out in a bedroom munching on cookies and drinks from the pantry.
They’re the ones who had busted a side door even though the front door had been blown into the yard by the tornado.
I laughed at the absurdity as a friend and I carried that unlucky front door from the yard to one of the growing trash heaps.
We had been helping out at another home just a few streets over when someone told us about the Walters who were cleaning up their parents’ yard all alone.
The house, though damaged, can be saved, and it will take weeks to clean up the front yard, which is covered in whole trees ripped up by the roots, metal and siding from nearby apartments, glass, two-by-fours and other debris.
Kathy Walter beamed when we showed up in her yard. When we asked where to start, she answered sheepishly, “Well, I don’t really know what to do. I’ve never done this before.”
So, we started building the piles that are all over West Liberty: brush, plywood, metal, roofing and insulation.
At times it feels futile picking through acres of debris, but it has to be done.
At what used to be a home, now mostly rubble, my friend Rose Sheffler sighed on behalf of the family who had lived there and said, “We really could be doing this for the whole summer.”
“We will be,” I responded, imagining how much faster it would go if all 4.5 million Kentuckians descended on the town at once.
And really, the only criteria for helping in West Liberty is the ability to bend down and pick something up. People with chainsaws and building skills are invaluable, but for those of us with zero skills in that department, we’re useful, too.
Mixed in with all the debris are people’s belongings – everything from couches to family photos to grandma’s strawberry jam. My section included a few financial documents, including a West Liberty bank deposit slip from 1988. I found an unbroken glass bowl in one part of the yard and its lid in another.
Most disconcerting to me are the tree limbs and trunks pierced by two-by-fours from homes. I shudder every time I imagine what anyone or anything outside faced when the tornado hit.
All the people I met from town were precious – I don’t know a better word to describe them.
I’ve stopped in West Liberty for lunch before, and that was always my impression – really friendly, kind people. Most families have lived there for generations and have several houses in the same area.
They lost it all. They are cramming into homes that weren’t torn apart – many of which are without power and water – and say they’ll rebuild. They’re deep-rooted and tight-knit; they’re made of the real stuff natural disasters can’t destroy.
A few of us volunteers, covered in mud and wet from the rain, needed to use the restroom Saturday, so a family opened up their hardware shop for us. They wouldn’t stop thanking us.
“God bless you, God bless you, thank you so much,” they repeated as we tracked mud through their store. “God will bless you for this.”
I was embarrassed and realized how honored I was to call myself a volunteer, honored to play a part in the rebuilding of my state.