It was time for remembrance. But also a time for celebration.
It was also a time for Morgan County residents to feel good about what’s been accomplished in the effort to recover from last year’s devastating tornado, but also to be reminded that a lot of work remains to be done.
Several hundred packed into the cafeteria of Morgan County High School to observe the one-year anniversary of the EF3 twister, which cut a wide swath of destruction through the county, reduced large sections of West Liberty, the county seat, to rubble and claimed seven lives.
A 23-minute ceremony began at 5:47 p.m., exactly one year to the minute since the tornado touched down.
Muffled sobs were heard throughout the room when a video showing images from the storm was played, along with a soundtrack of 911 calls from panicked callers reporting the tornado touching down near the Woodsbend community and heading in the direction of West Liberty.
“There’s nothing wrong with shedding tears, and we’re going to shed some here tonight,” said Morgan County Judge-executive Tim Conley, who served as master of ceremonies for the program.
At the same time, though, Conley said it was important the one-year anniversary of the storm serve as a point at which the community begins to put the tragedy behind it.
“We’re excited about living in Morgan County and West Liberty,” he said. “Our future is bright.”
West Liberty Mayor Jim Roop choked back tears as he talked about driving down Main Street through town to get to the ceremony. A year ago, he said, “The town was lying on Main Street.”
Roop also said it felt good to see happiness and laughter in the faces of residents after looking into those same faces a year ago and seeing “shock, fear and horror.”
Dorian Moe, manager of Project Recovery, a crisis counseling service established in Morgan County following the tornado, said one sign the community was beginning to move on from the tragedy was the drawings done by children at the encouragement of counselors to help them express their feelings.
While kids still remember the tornado, their drawings, for the most part, no longer include images of uprooted trees and smashed houses, like they did in the storm’s immediate aftermath, she said.
“The houses they draw now are all intact,” she said.
Fears of another tornado also have begun to abate, Moe said. In the weeks and months following the twister, every severe-weather warning would trigger fear and anxiety that another disaster was coming, she said.
Saturday’s ceremony featured the launch of 51 heat-propelled remembrance lanterns into darkening, snowy skies. The first seven were white, representing the seven miles another tornado that struck Morgan County two days before the March 2 disaster traveled. The next 37 were blue, representing the 37 miles the March 2 tornado traveled. And the final seven were white, representing the seven victims, six of whom died during the storm and one who perished four days later.
Conley also unveiled an architect’s rendering of the new Morgan County Transit Center, one of several public buildings that will be built or rebuilt with $30 million in state, federal and private funds that were recently allocated for that purpose.
Located in front of that building will be a remembrance park, which will feature a sculpture done by MCHS art students. The sculpture will be constructed out of tornado debris, Conley said.