Culver firefighters assist in southern Ind.

CULVER — Six Culver men — five volunteer firefighters and one local resident — spent the March 10 weekend in southern Indiana assisting communities there with cleanup after tornados devastated the area March 2. They returned with sober thoughts on weather phenomenon and how the Culver community would handle such a disaster.
Firemen Dave Cooper, Ken VanDePutte, Jerry Siler, Bob Cooper Jr., Brian McIntire, and friend Rick Kersey started their journey Friday afternoon after word came in late Thursday that arrangements had been made for them. The fire department was canvassed to see who wanted to, or was able to come along, and efforts were underway to gather supplies and other donations from Culver. Cooper’s sister coordinated three vanloads of donations through her Plymouth-based church, in addition to items donated from various stores in Plymouth, all of which made up the caravan of one Culver fire pickup, VanDePutte’s own pickup, and McIntire’s enclosed trailer.
The town of Henryville was already “saturated with volunteers,” said VanDePutte, and McIntire adds Henryville was aided by some 1,800 volunteers, and the smaller Marysville around 800 (the two towns are 12 or so miles apart, and comparable in size to Culver and Argos).
The group stayed, as did many volunteers, a few miles away from the towns at Country Lake Christian Retreat, which VanDePutte describes as “about the size of the (Culver) Academy.” A mix-up in accommodations for their first night put the men in for a surprise. They assumed their assigned building shared the creative names of others they’d seen. Instead, the “Prairie” building turned out to be an open area which actually was a prairie. “Wagon” was not the room name, but a description of their accommodations for the night: a prairie-style, canvas-covered wagon, which thankfully was accompanied by an electric heater.
In spite of the 29-degree temperatures that night (so cold a blanket Bobby Cooper placed in a crack was frozen to the canvas), the group agrees in light of the many people rendered homeless by the disaster, they felt little inclination to complain about the arrangements.
“We decided, ‘Let’s not complain around a lot of people because there’s a lot of people a lot worse off than us.’ The next night, we went from the prairie to a heated building (with) 24 beds. There were four children and 20 adult guys — probably 16 were snoring!”
Every possible need was provided for, he adds, from toiletries to food, showers to (had they needed it) clothing.
“I could have gone down there with just the clothes on my back,” said Bobby Cooper. “They had everything.”
It’s hard not to marvel at the American spirit of charity and neighborly assistance reported by Culver’s volunteer group. Bottled water stations, a Little Caesar’s semi handing out pizzas to volunteers and residents, a Tide semi trailer — even an individual on one street corner barbecuing and handing out food — were common sights, said Dave Cooper.
State police kept rubberneckers at bay, and a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew helped keep order, he adds.
As they worked — mostly cutting and removing downed trees — some of the men listened to the big event of the weekend hundreds of miles away in Plymouth: the Liberty Street Depot fire which some Culver firemen helped fight, by way of a scanner app on their cell phones, said VanDePutte.
Of course, the sheer volume of destruction was intense. The town of Marysville was virtually destroyed and may be removed from the map altogether. Other specific scenes stick with the men: the array of damage done by softball-sized hail, the devastation to the school, the fact that the tornado — despite assumptions that twisters avoid water — rolled right across three or four ponds nearly the size of Culver’s Hawk Lake.
“More than anything, it was just amazing,” reflects Dave Cooper. “When you come in, you look down and you can see where there used to be houses, trees, and neighborhoods — it looked like just a dirt field with twigs.”
And in spite of the devastation, residents and others routinely thanked the men for their efforts, shaking hands, offering lunch, and wishing blessings upon them.
“Weather was always exciting for me,” said Bobby Cooper somberly, “but after seeing that down there, I could go my whole life without seeing something like that again.”
What about Culver?
In addition to the charitable nature of their trip south, VanDePutte notes the firemen also felt the endeavor “would be a good training exercise. To see it and be part of it makes you think, if that came through here, what would you do?”
Among challenges particular to Culver in the event of a weather or similar disaster are security, notes McIntire, since Lake Maxinkuckee is known for its wealth. And, he points out, it’s difficult to know when many lake residents are here and when they’re away, making it difficult to be sure whether everyone is accounted for. Further, said VanDePutte, the dense population at Culver Academies when school is in session.
McIntire points out the initial disaster response would come from the local fire, police, and EMS agencies. Marshall County Emergency Management Agency director Clyde Avery “does a great job,” he adds. Avery would be called to determine if the disaster response should go to the next level, says Bobby Cooper: first county, then state, and eventually federal. The State of Indiana, he explains, provides a command center, vehicle, EMS task force, and various aids the community can utilize in the event of a major weather disaster, fire, or terrorist attack, should Avery deem such a response merited.
The Culver area has made strides recently, in concert with the county, to enhance tornado protection in particular, with several sirens added in the township and town, and a coordinated siren system in sync with county dispatch and Culver Academies’ sirens, aiding in alerting residents of dangerous weather. Culver’s fire department, as in years past, continues to “spot” for funnel clouds when they’ve been reported as potentially on their way, say the men. Trucks are sent south and north to respective sites on State Road 17, as well as to a position at the west to watch. This also prevents all the department’s equipment from being in a single building which could be destroyed by a tornado.
“The surrounding counties do a really good job of communicating...what’s coming,” adds Bobby Cooper. McCarthy notes firemen keep their eyes on TV weather warnings, and their radios are set off alongside everyone in all of Marshall County, if a tornado warning is sounded.
Siler warns that residents should still go to their basements if the tornado siren — one long, three-minute blast — sounds, even if television reports say the storm is 40 miles away.
McCarthy also reminds that even without a confirmed tornado in the town of Culver, damage at various points has been tornado-worthy.
And, adds McIntire, “just because you’ve never had one doesn’t mean you won’t.”