Monday, July 03, 2000

Owensboro picks up pieces after tornado

Residents healing, buildings repaired

The Associated Press

        OWENSBORO, Ky. — Two weeks ago, one of the last remnants from a vicious winter tornado disappeared from Marsha Johnson-Calhoun's neck.

        Ms. Johnson-Calhoun was the most seriously injured of any Owensboro resident on Jan. 3, when a freakish twister blasted through town, ripping apart hundreds of homes and inflicting millions of dollars in damage.

        Ms. Johnson-Calhoun suffered five broken vertebrae in her neck when a house collapsed around her. She wore a halo brace for 11 weeks. She shed a neck brace last month.

        “God took care of me,” she said. “I can't turn to the left yet, but I'm doing better.”

        The rest of Owensboro is also mostly healed, six months after the city's first tornado strike in 200 years.

        Officials at Kentucky Wesleyan College, which took the storm's most powerful punch, say students arriving in the fall won't see any trace of the substantial destruction.

        One of the campus' worst-hit structures was the elegant, 78-year-old President's Home, a two-story, 6,500-square foot Southern-style mansion. It lost two-thirds of its roof, opening the rooms to the storm's torrential downpour.

        The tornado also removed a large chunk of the roof from Peeples Hall and damaged Massie Hall before hammering Presidents Hall, which houses the library and dining hall. Part of the two-story building's heavy slate roof landed on the kitchen. Other buildings, including the Administration Building, were damaged, and scores of shade trees were lost.

        President Wes Poling has lived half a year in a rented house not far from campus. The presidential residence was taken down not long after the tornado, which left it unrepairable. The home will be replaced but not until more pressing repairs are completed on campus.

        “We're still saying the damage was $4 million to $5 million, give or take, with physical repairs, damage to trees, cleanup, refurbishing athletic fields and lost business,” Dr. Poling said. “The last thing we will do is rebuild the president's house. We're still negotiating with the insurance company.”

        In the meantime, the school's goal is to have everything else finished by the time the fall term begins in August. Currently, the dining area, dubbed the “tornado cafe” and kitchen are in temporary quarters. Nearly every building on campus needed a new roof, and many windows will have to be replaced. About 100 new trees will be planted this fall.

        “All in all we've made good progress,” Dr. Poling said. “When the students come back in the fall, we will be back to normal.”

        Hard-hit neighborhoods are also almost back to the way they were. Many residents forced out of homes that had to be torn down and rebuilt or repaired have been back in their homes for weeks.

        But much still remains to be done.

        Many rebuilt houses stand next to vacant concrete slabs. One of the empty lots has a slab that is piled high with rubble and waist-high grass in the front yard. That scene is repeated on many streets.

        Builder Paul Martin, president of the Owensboro Homebuilders Association, said negotiations with insurance companies have contributed to delays.

        “I'd say we're 75 to 80 percent back to normal,” Mr. Martin said.


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