Louisville Doctor Recounts His Visit to Tornado-Ravaged West Liberty

by Erica Peterson on March 5, 2012

There have been twenty-one confirmed deaths in Kentucky after tornadoes tore through the state on Friday. Seven of those deaths were in Morgan County, where the county seat, West Liberty, was leveled by the storms.

Louisville resident Alex Wright is a doctor with Norton Healthcare Systems. West Liberty is his hometown, and his extended family still lives there. He headed to the town Saturday morning to see how he could help, and described the scene he saw driving through downtown.

“I think heartbreaking is just too light of a word,” Wright said. “It was just devastating to see all of these things that you grew up seeing and playing around as a kid just completely leveled and flattened.”

Most of West Liberty’s downtown is gone, including the two banks, nearly all of the pharmacies and a World War One statue that was outside the courthouse. After going down Main Street, the tornado turned, headed up the hill, took the roof off the hospital and damaged the town’s only low-income housing complex. That meant there were many people who were homeless and injured, with no one to go.

By the time Wright got to West Liberty on Saturday morning, the people with serious injuries had already been transported to hospitals in other counties.

“We were starting to see the aftereffects, which are mundane, but important,” Wright said. Cases like a dialysis patient whose car was destroyed, so she couldn’t get to the dialysis center 40 minutes away. Many people needed access to their prescriptions.

And then there were the mental health issues.

“There were people who I think clearly were somaticizing the trauma of the event,” Wright said. “A lot of, ‘I feel nauseous, I don’t feel right.’ That was kind of the complaint. They couldn’t articulate it, so they came in with those symptoms.”

Wright says he’s been told West Liberty is in immediate need of bottled water and non-perishable food that doesn’t require a can opener. But West Liberty’s long-term problems are bigger, and harder to solve. Wright says the biggest need will be housing for the homeless. Vehicles are important, too—in a rural county without public transportation, people stranded without cars won’t have any way to get around.

As for the town itself, Wright says he’s not sure when or how it will rebuild.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll be there, I don’t know. Probably. They’re tough, they’re stubborn. I think they would probably not allow that to happen.”

In the interest of full disclosure, Wright is married to a WFPL employee.

Here the conversation:

Audio MP3

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