Howard B. Elam stands by a sign announcing the anticipated rebuilding of Commercial Bank, West Liberty and Morgan County's largest bank. Construction will wait until the bank settles with its insurance company following the March 2, 2012 tornado that destroyed the bank and much of the town.
The town was on edge as Howard B. Elam went home early on the first Friday in March 2012. His bank, Commercial Bank in West Liberty, Ky., usually stayed open until 6 p.m. on Fridays, but two days earlier, a small tornado had passed through the outskirts of the Morgan County seat, damaging a small shopping center and taking out trees on Elam’s property.
“It was about 100 yards from my house,” Elam said when remembering the phone call he’d received from his wife, a nurse at the nearby Morgan County Appalachian Regional Healthcare Hospital. She had asked him to head home to look after their then 14-year-old son, who was home alone. Doing so got him out of the path of an EF3 tornado that stayed on the ground for a 2012 record of 85 miles, according to the National Weather Service.
The tornado, according to the Weather Channel, packed winds of 140 miles per hour as it took the roof off the hospital where Elam’s wife was working before setting its aim down the hill on downtown West Liberty, home to his bank and the United Methodist Church, where he served as treasurer.
Elam’s seen neither of the buildings intact since.
“I’ve been in a war zone before. I’ve been in Vietnam, and that’s what it looked like,” Elam said from behind the desk of what is now Commercial Bank’s branch in the Index community of Morgan County, two and a half miles down US 460 from the center of town and the former sole location of the 113-year-old bank. “Everything was just chaos — buildings tore up, telephone poles down, trees down, some buildings totally demolished, some not. Just a mess.”
Elam, the bank’s president and member of the board of directors, was told to leave by Hank Allen, the bank’s CEO and chairman, who rode out the storm with an employee and a few people who had taken shelter in the stairwell of the three-story building.
The top floor, leased by Appalachian Regional Healthcare, was gone. The second floor, which housed the bank’s computer systems “was gutted,” according to Elam, as all of the windows were smashed and debris littered what remained of the floor.
Everyone in the building was fine. But the county’s largest bank had taken as severe of a hit as anything else in the city.
“This bank was totally wiped out. We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Elam said.
The city was blockaded by law enforcement and the National Guard, not to mention the debris, which included the steeple of Elam’s church in the middle of the intersection of Main Street and Prestonsburg Road, next to the bank.
Early Saturday morning, after spending the rest of Friday tracking down his family and coworkers, Elam joined Allen and a handful of others in bank management for a short-lived trip to the bank. After entering the city on foot with permission from the guardsmen to enter, a member of the Kentucky State Police ordered them out of the bank.
“We told him we were management of the bank and we were in there protecting the assets of the bank, and two or three of us were directors, board of directors and actually part owners of the bank,” Elam said in recalling a statement that didn’t come close to swaying the police officer. “We had no choice but to get out.”
Fast forward nearly two years and many buildings have been fixed, rebuilt or are under construction in downtown West Liberty. Just about every building and house near the city’s center has the hallmarks of recent work: brand new cinderblock foundations, new siding, a new roof, recently installed gutters. But the wood privacy fence often seen in Lexington’s suburbs is a staple in downtown West Liberty, which looks like the stereotypical hockey player’s mouth. Many of its teeth are missing.
The intersection of Main and Prestonsburg is marked by coming-soon signs, one for the bank and one for the Methodist Church. But Elam, admits he’ll be worshiping on that corner sooner, possibly much sooner, than he’ll be working on it again.
Construction on the church is out to bid, but for the bank that didn’t miss a beat in getting operations up and going again after the tornado, there’s no telling when its planned new building will break ground.
“We’re not sure,” Elam said when asked when work might begin on the site that now houses a trailer for tellers on one side and the final remnants of the 20,000-square-foot building, its vault, which remained intact and has continued to house the customer’s safe deposit boxes.
A dispute with its insurance company has waged on, and the bank felt there was no way to rebuild what remained and get it up to code, Elam said, while their insurance company felt differently.
“We’re conservative by nature, and you don’t want to invest more before you know how much you’re going to get [from an insurance settlement],” he said.
While reconstruction drags, the bank’s employees and others in banking, along with the rest of the Morgan County communities, didn’t in the aftermath of the storm.
The brick encased vault is all that remains of downtown West Liberty's Commercial Bank building. The Old Morgan County Courthouse behind it has undergone extensive repairs since the Mar. 2, 2012, tornado.
By early Sunday, little more than 36 hours after the storm hit, Elam, Allen and other bank management had received permission from fire marshals and state building inspection to don hardhats and re-enter the building to secure documents and survey the damage.
Later that afternoon, the bank’s full staff met and devised a plan to reopen by its usual 9 a.m. Monday time.
“We had no other location — none,” Elam said. “We were the biggest bank in town, had the most customers, still do, and we didn’t have a clue what we were going to do.”
The county allotted the bank space in its library and technology building. The first floor housed the tellers, and technology was given room on the second floor, where it’s still housed today.
“Monday morning up there at the library, we waited on people the old-fashioned way … We simply just wrote down, pencil and paper. We had two or three tables and three or four tellers set up, and we cashed checks and took deposits on Monday just like we always did. We never missed a beat,” he said.
The bank was owned in the late ’80s through late ’90s by Pikeville’s Community Trust Bank, before being sold back to employees of Commercial Bank. Despite no longer being one, Elam said Community Trust had always been seen as a sister bank, and so after the storm, a team of eight technology specialists from Community Trust were dispatched to West Liberty to aide Commercial.
By closing time that afternoon, what was left of the computers on the second floor of the destroyed building had been set up in the county building. Two days later, the bank wasn’t working the old-fashioned way anymore; its daily computer updates were re-established.
And those looking to get a hold of the bank over the phone were able to do so as the Mountain Rural Telephone Cooperative had set up the bank with five cell phones that rang from the bank’s main number.
“By 9:30 Monday morning, we had five cell phones and we were answering calls up at the tech center just like we were Friday when we were in business,” Elam said. “The customers couldn’t believe that they could call the bank and get us. It gave them confidence that everything’s going to be alright.”
By then, assistance was pouring in from around Kentucky.
“We got help from so many different banks that sent us stuff — furniture, supplies. There’s no way I could remember all of them that helped,” Elam said.
“We knew we needed a location back in town, and we knew we needed a more permanent location until we could get rebuilt.”
One of the bank’s directors owned a vacant building in Index that had most recently been occupied by a Dairy Cheer restaurant, so the bank decided to renovate the building to house its offices. The parking lot became the bank’s home within a few weeks of the storm, as a trailer for tellers was put on site while loan officers stayed in the county building. Within four months of the storm, the bank’s Index branch was open as tellers manned the counter and loan officers had new desks at a site Elam expects to keep once the new building downtown is finally constructed.
And the new offices came just in time for the bank to experience major growth in assets as loans were paid off and other money was deposited as insurance claims came through for residents and businesses affected by the tornado.
“All of the sudden, we went from a $125 million bank to almost a $170 million bank, just because of all of the insurance claims and money. Now I think we’re back to $140 million,” he said, adding in the end he expects the bank to settle out in the $135 million to $138 million range.
Since the tornado ripped through the community and killed six 22 months ago, the bank that had its home at the center of the community for years has been split for the first time between three locations.
“We’re not used to that. You have to operate a little differently when you have separate locations,” Elam said.
But he’s looking forward to when his church, the bank and the town where his father was born and where he’s called home since his father left the military in 1963 gets back to the way it was before the tornado.
“It was a nice little town, and it will be a nice little town again. It is an opportunity that doesn’t come around — and I hate that it came around this way — but you have an opportunity to do something pretty nice,” he said.
“Life goes on; you still have to figure out a way to make it work,” Elam said while standing on the former site of the bank he’d left just minutes before it was destroyed. “Nobody that I know in West Liberty’s a quitter. I mean, it’s just not in us.”