NAPPANEE — It is something few people experience in person — a powerful entity that no one wants to be within the path of.
Something that is out of human control and something that’s wrath can bring nothing but destruction — the power of Mother Nature. The tornado that hit Nappanee, Ind. five years ago is one that so affected area residents that the date of its powerful surge — Oct. 18, 2007 — will forever be etched in their minds.
It came with a fury
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), using the Enhanced Fujita Scale ranking tornadoes from EF0 (minor) to EF5 (total annihilation), the EF3 that hit Nappanee that fateful day brought with it winds of approximately 136 to 165 mph — the equivalent of the strength of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. The NWS had confirmed a single tornado touchdown during the late evening hours of Oct. 18 and the damage associated with its violent trek’s beginning (as per tracked by satellite), near the intersection of 12B road and Gumwood road just west of the Town of Bourbon at approximately 10:05 p.m. EDT.
Damage to that area was consistent with the aftermath damage of an EF0 with minor shingle and tree damage. As the whirlwind moved rapidly northeast at more than 50 mph, it intensified on its way to Bremen. Several structures, trees and power lines suffered varying degrees of damage with the intensity reaching high-end EF1 intensity just prior to crossing into Kosciusko county (near 1000 N along the county line) with a path width of nearly a half-mile. It continued to intensify over the northwest area of Kosciusko County and raged itself into EF3 intensity just south of Nappanee.
“I remember when it hit; it was 10:18 (p.m.) because the date was 10-18,” said Nappanee Fire Chief Don Lehman. “I was at the fire station at that time because we were on weather watch. We had some trucks staged at the specific positions, basically it’s so we can give a pre-warning to set off the siren.” Lehman was not the fire chief at the time (but was the assistant), rather it was Tom Anglin that held the role. “I personally didn’t see it but heard the (Nappanee Police) officer say it was coming,” Lehman explained. “That’s how we knew.”
The voice Lehman heard came from Nappanee Patrolman Curtis Weldy, on the force just a little more than two years at the time. He was on his normal 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift and was in the act of weather watching and was positioned at S.R. 19 and 1350 N. “I heard a fire unit south of me call in low clouds and possibly a tornado but they were unsure,” he said. “I left the intersection (thinking that if it was a tornado it is coming right at me) and drove west on 1350 N. As I got to the first Amish house on the south side of the roadway, just before 850 W the tornado hit me. Due to the time of day it was completely dark and I did not observe the oncoming tornado.”
It destroyed the house that was to his left with a deafening roar. “The thing I remember most was the amount of debris hitting my car and worrying about something coming through the window,” he said. “I had seen a few funnel clouds from a distance growing up, and a small one damaged our barn one night when I was a child but I slept through it. My car, surprisingly, did not sustain much damage, a few dents but that was it.
Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson recalled the moment he was informed that the storm was bringing with it a powerful twister. “Our storm system was and is that our emergency chiefs come up to the police department for stationing for storm watch so by the time I got there the storm was bearing down,” he said. “We have tapes of the police officer (Curtis Weldy) that reported it first, saying; ‘the tornado is on the ground,’ and that’s a pretty scary thing to hear. You hear the wind and when you think about a tornado coming at you, you don’t really have time to think about much but ‘well … in a few minutes we’re either going to be here … or we’re not.’”
The NWS said the storm continued into southeast Nappanee with 17 homes suffering extensive damage — the storm reaching maximum intensity of a high end EF3 — and wreaked havoc, caused widespread and severe damage to homes and businesses within its path. More than 100 structures suffered significant damage or were destroyed in Nappanee before the twister continued moving northeast and out of town weakening and then lifting back into the sky near the intersection of C.R. 46 and C.R. 17 — it’s overall path leaving cataclysmic scars extending 20 miles in all.
The aftermath was unbelievable
The aftermath was humbling as well as devastating yet order was found and continued through the chaos. Nappanee Clerk Treasurer Kim Ingle said the town’s street department building had been hit, several of the outbuildings lost, and a pickup truck and van were destroyed in mere seconds. “There was a little damage to every vehicle down there but most of them we were able to fix up and still use,” she said. “The street department was displaced for about nine months and they met at the park department building.”
Mayor Thompson explained that a police squad car was damaged as was a fire truck and ambulance, those that were in the direct line of the tornado when it hit. “It’s a miracle that’s all the destruction we had,” he said. “We had some injuries but thankfully, no deaths.” He it was more businesses than homes hit, businesses such as Fairmont Homes and Franklin Coach and a number of fast food restaurants.
Emergency depts. went into action
The mayor said the city’s and county’s emergency plans were immediately put into action and smoothly carried out. Some 25 ambulances were assembled in preparation to care for the injured but by daybreak and after canvassing homes and businesses two or three times in search of the injured or missing, most of the emergency medical staff were sent back. “Ours and other agencies did what all we had talked about in the case of an event like this,” he said.
“We had a lot of gas leaks that we had to respond to in that first 24 hours,” said Lehman. “For the first couple days, after assessing damage and looking door-to-door for people trapped and making sure everyone was accounted for, it was all cleanup. Some of us were working 36 straight hours.”
“While being hit by the tornado I called dispatch on the radio and let them know,” Weldy explained. “Immediately after, a young Amish couple with their infant — and I believe a sister to the couple — came out of the house that was to my left and destroyed. I assisted them to a neighbors house that was safe and began to make my way back into town. I tried S.R. 19 and C.R. 7 (Oakland) but they were impassible due to debris.“
Weldy said he eventually made his way to Nappanee Elementary where the staging area was and then assisted with a search of the damaged areas along with other local emergency personnel.
“We had the big walk-though of properties and a lot of corn fields where there were huge piles of debris,” Mayor Thompson explained. “We all kind of went around doing what we needed to in a type of fog. Rural areas were heavily affected and a lot — I’d say 60 to 70-percent of rural damage was either Amish homes or Amish-owned. They got to work rebuilding right away. They didn’t have to wait for insurance adjusters to arrive and then assess, so they were tearing things down, and in about two days they were rebuilding.”
Non-Amish were behind that repair schedule by about two weeks — for those that were insured. Those uninsured had bigger obstacles to face than waiting for repairs to take place. Luckily for them they had the conscientious efforts of generous area Nappanee residents and officials to look toward as well as relief organizations such as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the local Family Christian Development Center.
Aid arrived quickly
Aid came in all shapes and sizes. “The tornado happened on a Thursday and Saturday night I got a call from the mayor and he was drawing a number of people together to city hall for a meeting Sunday,” explained Ingle. “From that meeting we decided we needed to have a recovery group to get us through this. He was totally instrumental in putting that together and it consisted of a fiscal officer — the mayor asked me to act as that. The director was Linda Yoder, then our librarian (now the director of the Marshall County Community Foundation). We had a case management committee and we had it set up so people could come in and present their needs at a case management meeting and then if they passed some requirements, they would bring it to the fiscal committee and they would decide what they could fund for these folks. Once approved, another committee would set things up to take care of those needs for the residents.”
Made up of about 40 Nappanee residents and business owners, their peers found aid in assistance through the local organization, dubbed the Northern Indiana Tornado Relief Organization (NITRO). Overall those with and without insurance received something to make the starting over a little easier, including those that met with no damage to property or health, but that became unemployed as a result of the Oct. 18 storm.
But it was what happened immediately after the media spread the word about the gravity of the local situation that sparked a kind of miracle.
“It was amazing,” explained Ingle, “people came out of the walls. You couldn’t imagine the number of folks that just appeared to help — even from all over the United States. We had street and utility departments coming from other cities to help us shut off water leaks and police departments that just showed up, because so many people wanted to help and it was such a huge project.”
She continued, “One of the first things that went through my mind was: ‘how are we gonna clean this up?’ The mayor put out a press release asking for help and for volunteers to meet at NorthWood High School and we planned to transport them into affected areas by bus. It wasn’t just people near the Nappanee area but everyone and their brother. We had four to 5,000 people show up that day.” She said the overwhelming response was too much and that volunteers were told that if the city couldn’t get them to the areas that needed assistance, they would have to leave. “But they found their ways in,” Ingle said. “They were here to help and they truly did.”
“When more than 3,000 individual people descend at once upon your community, it’s a bit overwhelming,” said Mayor Thompson. “It was incredible how everyone came together to help. Locally the Elkhart County Community Foundation helped us collect and oversee the funds coming in. Private foundations made generous donations to us. We could go on about all the big donations but when you measure that by the number of individuals that bought a video, a T-shirt — the elementary classes that raised $50 or $200 — it was just amazing.”
He said the generosity helped people who may have had insurance but maybe only had liability on their cars and helped them rebuild their lives if not their homes. Donations assisted those that needed only clothes and swamped in from the area from as far away as Louisiana and even Nappanee, Ontario from churches, civic organizations, businesses and individuals. Enterprising do-gooders Tim and Jill Enright immediately stepped up and created a DVD to be sold as a fundraiser, one that featured Bruce Springsteen’s song “Rise Up” in 2007 and survivor T-shirts were also sold in 2008.
“On two occasions we were able to make contributions to the Amish to reimburse them for building materials,” Mayor Thompson said. “They were such a big part of this cleanup and renewal effort I feel very good about the fact we were able to help them too.”
Aid continued on … for the most part
Shortly after the bevy of winds hid the north-central Indiana (early in January) State Rep. Jackie Walorski and Rep. Bill Friend co-sponsored an appeal to the governor after it was made known that the city depleted its funds helping citizens pay for damaged not covered by insurance. Afterward, a letter was written to then-President George W. Bush — supported by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — that requested disaster relief for Elkhart, Kosciusko and Marshall counties. The draft was submitted by nine House of Representatives members including U.S. Rep. Mark Souder and Senators Richard G. Lugar and Evan Bayh and described the affect of the EF3 tornado that hit Nappanee as “devastating” to the city and asked to receive assistance for the “proportionately-greater” impact the storm had on the community than the raging wildfires had at that time in California. As final calculations came it, more than 250 homes and businesses were found to be damaged in the community of 6,650. Gov. Daniels was able to offer the city $200,000 Jan. 25, of 2008. The city made a transference of more than $350,000 from its Rainy Day Fund and another $200,000 from Economic Development Income Tax funds went to put things together for the city.
But the request for assistance to assist with rebuilding of the structures and lives of those in Nappanee was deemed unwarranted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — twice — though the entity assisted Malibu, Calif. in replacing luxury homes after that area’s wildfires.
“I’m not here to debate the FEMA declarations we didn’t get,” said Mayor Thompson. “It was a small storm in comparison to Katrina or the wildfires in other parts of the country. But it brought about a blessing. Because our government said ‘we’re not going to help you’ the community — the people, dug in to help each other. The State of Indiana and it’s representatives stepped up and we had pledged from the beginning that money that came in would all go only to NITRO and would go directly to citizens. With the overflow we were able to give back a small donation to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and Hope Rescue Mission in South Bend in appreciation for all they did and all they provided for us. We didn’t let go of any money initially until we saw to it that our people had what they didn’t — what we could do for them. Our (NITRO) assessment team had a very clearly defined management system run out of the Methodist church. People we hired to do the assessments like FEMA would’ve done, made sure the process went smoothly. Linda Yoder served as chairman of NITRO and we put together a really good team. Kim Ingle had charge of things. We had lawyers, city attorney Brian Hoffer, insurance people, ministers, and they tried to offer help in any way we could. We put together a strong team and I was pretty impresses by its success.”
“FEMA has their rules and they determined that even though storm-wide there was $70 million in damage … their view was majority-wise most of the people were insured and didn’t need their help,” explained Ingle. “As far as the city’s losses, the state did give the city approximately $200,000 toward renewal. But it was about a $1.5 to $1.8 million loss. The city itself lost the whole street department and other city functions and we had to take care of that and it was a whole different beast. The city was insured of course but we also had some ‘out-of-pocket’.
For our citizens, we were able to help with $695,000 — all received from private donations and all spent on the private citizens, the victims of the tornado.”
Rebuilt and restored yet recovering
“It was several weeks before all the debris from the houses and factories and businesses was completely hauled out,” explained Ingle. “All of it was taken to where the street department had been, out back of Wabash Street, and Beer and Slabaugh, Nappanee had this industrial grinder that could chew it all up and spit out piles of wood in one pile, metal in another … it was pretty impressive. It ground everything from roofs, trees, signs, all of it. It took them about six weeks to grind it all and it was hauled to the Elkhart County landfill where they took it in for us for free. At one point, the pile was so high the people at the landfill called it Mount Nappanee.”
“Fortunately I believe all but one of the businesses has been rebuilt so we’re all somewhat back to normal,” said Mayor Thompson who has been the mayor for 17 years. “The proudest thing for me was: first, we were all so fortunate that we all survived but also how this community and people in so many other communities came together. A year after the storm we celebrated that our lives were almost back to normal. I really feel like that in the following 10 months after the tornado hit we really had the majority of the damage cleaned up.”
He said he was also proud of his departments and emergency response plans that had almost seamlessly went into effect, even though there were so many different entities coming in to take charge of this or that.
Mayor Thompson explained: “We had assistance from the chief of the Goshen Police Department, people from Elkhart County and everyone came in, did what they were there to do and they didn’t do anything for the glory of it. There were heroes that were made.”
And Mayor Thompson said that five years later even the emotional scars have begun to heal.
“We’ve heard that siren a few times since then,” Mayor Thompson said, “and it’s a whole different sound now — but all in all — we’re in pretty good shape.”
On the five-year anniversary, Thursday, Oct. 18, a “We All Survived — Five Years After The Tornado” celebration will be held. New Beginnings Assembly of God, 901 S. Main St., Nappanee will be hosting the event (at the site their building originally stood) as a look back at the event that changed so many lives and to celebrate how far Nappanee and its residents have come. There will be a short program beginning at 6:30 p.m. that will include prayer and the viewing of videos that tell the story of the event, followed by refreshments and guest speakers including Channel 16’s Mike Hoffman. The public is invited to attend the free event.