Kentucky Storm Death Toll Rises to 22

By BRUCE SCHREINER | March 7, 2012

A tornado that tore through West Liberty last week hovered along the ground for about 60 miles in eastern Kentucky, showing staying power while cutting swaths of damage spanning several counties, a meteorologist said Monday.

Kentucky’s death toll from Friday’s wave of storms rose to 22 with another fatality in Kenton County in the state’s northernmost region.

Snow added to the misery of people cleaning up in West Liberty, where the tornado demolished the downtown and neighborhoods. Nearly a half-foot of snow fell overnight, and utility workers were bundled as they restrung power lines and put up new poles.

Linda Oakley was ready to start over as she looked at the remnants of the flower shop where she worked in downtown West Liberty.

“The buildings are gone, but the town is still here,” she said. “We’re a close-knit community. We’re going to come back.”

Oakley’s boss had already decided to find some place to reopen temporarily until deciding on a permanent location. Just being able to buy flowers would bring back a bit of normalcy, Oakley said.

The town was pounded by an EF-3 tornado packing winds up to 140 mph. Homes were splintered homes and businesses crumbled.

The tornado track spanned parts of four Kentucky counties – Menifee, Morgan, Johnson and Lawrence, said National Weather Service meteorologist Tony Edwards in Jackson. Damage spread up to a mile wide at times.

For the eastern Kentucky region, “you’re talking pretty much an unprecedented track length,” he said.

The storm eventually crossed into West Virginia, he said.

The tornado was the strongest to hit eastern Kentucky in nearly a quarter century, Edwards said.

Meanwhile, another tornado that took a more southern path was on the ground for nearly 50 continuous miles in eastern Kentucky, he said. It first touched down in Wolfe County, then ripped through parts of Magoffin, Johnson and Martin counties. It barely strayed into West Virginia before going airborne, he said.

By contrast, a deadly tornado in Laurel County in southeastern Kentucky was on the ground for about six miles.

Records show that on average, EF-3 tornadoes remain on the ground for nearly seven continuous miles, said Steve Corfidi, a lead forecaster with the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

In Alabama last April, two tornadoes remained on the ground for more than 125 miles each. In March 1925, a tornado that hit parts of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana was on the ground for 219 continuous miles.

Last week’s tornado that slammed into Martin County damaged homes in an area that was in the path of a massive coal slurry spill in 2000 that oozed some 300 million gallons of the muck into yards and streams for miles.

It was considered one of the South’s worst environmental disasters at the time. Slurry is a byproduct of purifying coal.

The tornado and its severity seemed to take people by surprise in the eastern Kentucky county.

“We live in the mountains. We didn’t think there was such a thing,” said Martin County Judge-Executive Kelly Callaham.

In West Liberty, there was a capricious nature to the storm and its path of destruction. On Ed Keeton’s street, five homes near his were destroyed. His had a tree on it and some other damage, but his home was still inhabitable.

“We’re blessed,” he said. “That’s all I can tell you. Why did it hit one house and miss the other? I don’t know.”

At the downtown flower shop where Oakley worked, the second story of the building was gone and the first floor was badly damaged. But some silk flower arrangements were still on their shelves, virtually untouched.

“It just looks like it did when I left it the other day,” she said.

Meanwhile, the state said six people had died from storm-related injuries in Morgan County, which includes West Liberty. Five people were reported dead in Laurel County, four in Kenton County, three in Menifee County and two each in Lawrence and Johnson counties.

More than 300 injuries were reported statewide. Power outages from Friday’s storms affected 5,652 customers by Monday afternoon, the state said. Several hundred National Guard troops were deployed to assist with security, traffic control and other duties.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway warned that price gouging spurred by the storm would not be tolerated.

“As the difficult cleanup begins, I want to ensure that those who are suffering are not victimized again by unscrupulous businesses,” he said in a statement.

Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order during the weekend to implement Kentucky’s price-gouging laws statewide, Conway said. The emergency order will be in effect for 30 days.

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