A memorial for the victims of the deadly December 10 tornado hangs on a fence in front of the damaged courthouse in Mayfield, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

The staff of the Licking Valley Courier in West Liberty, Kentucky, knows all too well how long it can take for a town to come back after a tornado. Images of the recovery efforts from the Mayfield, Kentucky, natural disaster in early December brought back the memories of their own experience nearly a decade ago.

Earl Kinner, the Licking Valley Courier’s publisher, was at his home across the street from the newspaper on March 2, 2012, when a tornado struck West Liberty. It ripped through the 3,000-person community, damaging or destroying nearly every building in the downtown area.

Paul Casteel, pastor of West Liberty Christian Church, stands in front of concrete rubble, all that remained of his demolished church in West Liberty, Kentucky. The century-old church building was smashed by a tornado that hit the eastern Kentucky town in March of 2012. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner, File)

Located about five hours apart, Mayfield is in the southwestern side of the state, near the border to Tennessee and Illinois, while West Liberty is in the eastern central part of the state, about halfway between Lexington and Huntington, West Virginia. 

Kentucky is no stranger to tornadoes, averaging more than 20 a year, but typically, tornadoes don’t strike the state in December. The storms of December 10 that hit Mayfield were part of a storm system that started in Arkansas and left a swath of death and destruction across five states. Just three weeks later, on New Year’s Day, seven tornadoes ripped through southern Kentucky. 

The storms in Mayfield nearly leveled the town in what Governor Andy Beshear called “the most devastating tornado event in Kentucky history.” In West Liberty, the 2012 tornado damaged or destroyed every building in the downtown area, reports at the time said.  

“My home, and my son’s home right across the street, both of those homes were destroyed,” Kinner said. “Mine was just a frame home and it just turned into kindling. The other home, my son’s home was just wrecked… We lost all of our cars. The company was destroyed, the building was demolished. We lost the company vehicle. When it was over, we didn’t have much of anything left.”

Within hours though, Kinner said, crews were working to clear the streets and turn the power back on, and in just a few days, Kinner and his employees were back at work to put out a local paper.

The weeks and months to follow, however, required changes and adaptations – some of which never really went away, even nearly a decade later. The process of recovering, Kinner said, takes years. Even after all that time though, things will never go back to the way they were, he said.

In the days that followed the tornado, Courier’s then-reporter/now-editor Miranda Cantrell said things were chaotic at best.

“We didn’t know for a few days what we were going to do,” she said. “I began actually working in a shelter for a few days that was near my house. Then, I just felt like I wasn’t really helping anybody. And I kind of decided that the best thing for me to do would be to somehow get the news and updates out to people.”

Cantrell said she started a Facebook page for the paper and began posting updates on what was going on and where people could go for help.

In Mayfield, the Mayfield Graves County Chamber of Commerce and the Mayfield Messenger are doing the same. The Chamber of Commerce posts information about the community, member businesses and their hours and locations, as well as updates from information on receiving disaster unemployment assistance. The Mayfield Messenger posts information on Facebook about holiday events, free hot meals, supply donations from out of town and dumpster locations. A recent post on both pages indicated roads through the city of Mayfield have been closed due to structural issues with the Hall Hotel, a local landmark damaged during the tornado.

Kenny Sanford exits his mother-in-law’s apartment through a collapsed wall Saturday, December 11, 2021, in Mayfield, Kentucky. Tornadoes and severe weather caused catastrophic damage across several states Friday, killing multiple people overnight. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Kentucky Department of Transportation engineers asked people to stay out of the downtown areas of Mayfield as heavy equipment traveled through the city removing debris. 

Kinner said his experiences in West Liberty after the tornado were similar.

“Our little town is a lot smaller than Mayfield – we’ve got 3,000; they had over 10,000,” he said. “Right after the (West Liberty) tornado – the County Emergency Management organization was expecting this – within 2 hours, or maybe less than that, our crews were out clearing the streets. .. Within another two hours, this whole town was flooded with emergency vehicles and equipment from all over this area. But it was a wreck and people were just dazed…It was chaotic, and cold, with no power, and nobody quite knew what to do.”

Kinner said the recovery efforts at first were efficient. But in the aftermath, when the federal government came in, things got chaotic – federal agencies had meetings about how to get small business loans, but most people were in shock, he said. It took about a month for most people to figure out what they were going to do, he said. Communicating with people was hard, he said, because those in areas that saw the most damage either went to live in other towns, or moved in with family or friends in other parts of the county.

Before long, Kinner had arranged a partnership with the Mt. Sterling Advocate that allowed reporters and designers at the Courier to put together the paper there, Cantrell said.  

“We went down there, I think it was the Wednesday after the tornado,” she said. “I had worked on a bunch of stuff at home and my boss… had written out a story by hand and had given it to me to top up to take down there. Then that Thursday, I wrote a story trying to update people about where everything was at because a lot of these businesses, they reopened after the tornado, but they were in various locations and different places (than where) they had been before.”

Kinner and Cantrell, along with six other employees were able to publish the paper on Friday – one day late – despite the tornado taking out all but one of their computers.

“I think we salvaged one computer out of our office,” Kinner said. “My son… was the business manager and took care of the subscription list, and all that. He had a little cubicle office right in the middle of the place. Fortunately, our subscription list and our business records were on our computer in that little room and they didn’t even get wet… Without that, we would really have been in trouble.”

Within a few weeks, he said, the paper was operating out of a trailer. Kinner said he took what the insurance company offered him and moved on from there. It would be almost nine months from the day the tornado hit before Kinner was able to rebuild the newspaper’s building. Even then, the building went from 3,000-square-feet to 1,500-square-feet, he said.

Now, years after the tornado, the town isn’t the same, he said. Once a thriving little town with a business district filled with local businesses, the downtown is now mostly filled with government buildings, law offices and a pawn shop, he said.

Businesses want to come back, Kinner said, but rebuilding made rents cost prohibitive. Additionally, the loss in population means the area can’t support many local businesses.

“We still haven’t recovered from it,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will take. It’s been eight or nine years. And it’ll be that way, I suspect, down there (in Mayfield). In two months, all that debris will be gone. It’ll be clean, and they’ll probably have electric and water and so forth going, but it’s just going to be a ghost town.”

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