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By JONNA SPELBRING PRIESTER
Landmark News Service
As a cold, steady rain fell, Gregg Williams, along with friends and family members began sorting through the twisted, mangled pile that once was his home.
A chilly wind whipped around them as they pulled clothes, camping gear, guitars and more from the rubble. The remnants of the home scattered east from the home toward a second home, owned by Janet Spies, that also was destroyed.
According to the National Weather Service, the damage was caused by an EF-3 tornado that developed as part of a very strong line of storms that moved through the region early Monday morning.
Monday’s tornado touched down at around 5 a.m., according to Kentucky State Police. In its statement, the NWS said that the twister was about 150 feet wide and had winds of 130-140 miles per hour.
In just two minutes, according to the NWS, the tornado ripped a path that was 2.3 miles long, leveling the two homes, destroying at least two barns and damaging several others.
“The tornado touched down just to the southwest of KY 1899 (Mulberry Pike), 1.5 miles southeast of Eminence,” before crossing into the Springhill subdivision, where it tore through Williams home and detached garage/workshop, before heading up the hill to property owned by Janet Spies.
From there, the tornado traveled northeast across Hillsprings Road, where the NWS reports that 15 utility poles were torn down, another barn destroyed and the roof blown off of another.
“The tornado continued across Ky. 22, where trees were blown down and one outbuilding was damaged,” the report states. By the time the twister left the ground near Drennon Creek, according to NWS, the path was just 60 yards wide.
Powerlines from the damaged utility poles crossed Ky. 22 and Hillsprings Road, resulting in the closure of both roads for much of the day.
According to Kentucky Utilities, 1,200 power customers in Henry County were without power at one point. But by 4:30 p.m., just 55 were without power along the two roads — nine in the Springhill Estates, and 46 along Hillsprings Road. Power was restored Monday evening.
The families in the Springhill Estates homes were sleeping when the storm hit, according to Trooper Michael Webb, Kentucky State Police Post 5 Public Affairs Officer.
Contrary to televised reports, the Williams family did not seek refuge under their bed when the storm hit.
“When he was in the residence and the house started breaking apart, (Williams) was still in bed,” Webb said Monday afternoon, noting that Williams was still shaken up. A wooden dresser stopped the ceiling and roof from landing fully on Williams.
From there, Webb said, the family sought refuge in a black car, which had already been moved by the tornado to a tree on the southwest side of the house. That also was contrary to initial reports that the family was in the car when the storm tossed the vehicle.
Early reports also stated that three houses were destroyed in the neighborhood, but Webb said Monday afternoon that that too was incorrect.
Two houses were destroyed, plus Williams’ garage/workshop.
While the two buildings on Williams’ property were thoroughly destroyed, a couple of walls in the Spies home were still standing — but little else was.
At the time the newspaper was on the scene, Webb said Williams did not yet want to talk. Spies and another family member were taken to Jewish Hospital in Shelbyville, where they were treated for relatively minor injuries.
Several calves were trapped in a barn on the Spies property, but were rescued without incident. Several horses were injured and treated by a local veterinarian, but one horse had to be euthanized due to injuries it sustained when a tree fell on it.
Denny Washburn, Assistant Director of Henry County’s Emergency Management Agency, said the county lucked out, despite the severity of the storm.
Henry County Road Department Supervisor Glen Baxter said there was little damage elsewhere in the county.
“We didn’t actually see a lot, we had a tree down on Hardin Lane, and a barn roof in the road over on Sweeney, but other than that, that’s all we had on (county) roads,” he said.
Baxter said he knows both of the Springhill Estates property owners, and that he talked with Williams around lunchtime Monday, describing Williams as, understandably, “pretty distraught.”
Spies was reportedly staying with relatives, while the Red Cross was assisting the Williams family.
HCPS, EIS operate on schedule
In what some parents may have seen as a controversial decision, Henry County Public Schools and Eminence Independent Schools operated on a normal schedule Monday.
According to Samantha Behmke, school secretary at Eastern Elementary School, 40 students were absent. Eastern draws from areas that were worst hit by the storm.
HCPS Superintendent Tim Abrams said that despite a complaint called into WAVE-3 in Louisville, the district received no complaints about running on a normal schedule. The one call Abrams did receive, he said, was not about the schedule, but about a road used to reroute buses to pick up students in areas affected by the two road closures.
“(WAVE-3) thought we had buses on the road during the warning, which was not correct,” he said. When the district’s first student was picked up, around 7 a.m., Abrams said the storm had cleared Henry County and the rain had stopped.
Once Abrams heard a tornado hit Eminence, he called KSP, HCPS Transportation Director Bruce Gentry and School Resource Officer Mike Lucas to see if there was any storm damage that might make having school an impossibility. Aside from downed power lines on Ky. 22 and Hillsprings Road, there was no such damage, and routes around those points could be redirected fairly easily.
“We talked to the law enforcement and first responders and felt like we could reroute bus traffic around those two problems... with little adjustment,” he said.
“We knew some folks were without power, but all the roads were safe to travel other than those two that were closed. So we made the decision to have school at a normal time. That went relatively well.
“A delay in my mind at the time, and still, from what I heard from KU delaying for lack of electricity probably wouldn’t have changed matters for those folks,” Abrams said.
Abrams said that a false alarm, likely triggered by a power outage, went off at the high school at around 5 a.m., the same time the storm rolled through the county.
Abrams said he was “a little surprised,” that a parent would call Louisville media before calling to complain to him about the situation.
Criticism of the decision, he speculated, may have come about because Jefferson County Public Schools operated on a 2-hour delay. But he noted that JCPS starts picking up students at least an hour earlier than HCPS.
If HCPS had buses on the road, picking students up at 6 a.m., he said, the decision would have been different.
“If that had been the case, we wouldn’t have known the conditions of the community,” he said. “But we had a couple of hours to call around... the police and first responders were out. We knew what the condition of the county was before we made the decision to go.”