News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 19, 2013

In the wake of the storm

Devastating storms, tornadoes ravage Midwest; Kokomo, Washington search through what’s left

KOKOMO — Kokomo resident Freda Smith, 87, was trying to get back to her bedroom when Sunday’s storm took part of the roof off her home. Standing in the hallway next to her bathroom, Smith was shaken but unharmed.

Brian Harless, his wife, Jennifer, and their kids took shelter in an underground bunker they’d installed a couple years ago behind their house. No one was hurt.

“It was the best $3,500 we’ve ever invested,” Harless said.

Phyllis Rawlins was visiting family in Kentucky when she heard her home had been blown off its foundation.

Clearly shaken, Rawlins stood by quietly Monday as members of a local Church of God and family members looked through the rubble for anything salvageable. She and her late husband, Edgar Rawlins, a local pastor, built the home eight years ago.

“We built it for our retirement, and now it’s gone,” she said.

And Nathan Brandon watched as what he’s pretty sure was a funnel cloud came down at a nearby street corner. He had barely enough time to get to his basement before the roof tore off.

“You could feel it lift up the house,” Brandon said. “We heard on the radio it was 7 and a half minutes out. It didn’t take 7 and a half minutes to get here.”

Dianne Huffman was out walking, looking for her long-haired tabby, Trixie. She’d been in a front bedroom with her husband, watching as the storm worsened, possibly too curious for her own good.

“I heard a roar, and I said, ‘This is the best storm we’ve ever been in. Then I kind of realized it was too much for us,’” she said.

By the time they opened the bedroom door, the roof was gone and the north wall had partially collapsed.

Devastation, but few

injuries, no deaths

Again and again on Monday, officials who came to Kokomo to survey the damage had one consistent comment: It was incredibly fortunate no one was seriously hurt or killed by whatever hit Kokomo.

But it was the worst storm to hit Kokomo since the deadly 1965 Palm Sunday tornado, and it took a very similar path through town. Those who remember the Palm Sunday tornado said it tracked a bit farther south, damaging the Chrysler plants between Boulevard and Lincoln Road.

“I haven’t seen such devastation in a long, long time,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said. “To walk the neighborhoods is to feel even more grateful in my heart there’s no loss of life.”

Kokomo was the first stop on Pence’s damage tour of the state Monday, but Pence said he didn’t expect to see anything worse. Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly were also present for the tour, which took them through several streets.

Even without people hurt, the storm damage was heartbreaking.

“Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for what I’ve just witnessed,” U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita said. “The pictures you’ve seen on TV or online just don’t do any of this justice.”

Officials with state and federal emergency management agencies will be in Kokomo for the next several days to get an exact assessment of the damage.

Businesses hit included a Soupley’s liquor store, Eriks Chevrolet, the Hewlett Packard building on East Hoffer Street, Rally’s at Hoffer and U.S. 31 and several others.

About a half mile south from the track of the main tornado, the city’s Fire Station 6 was badly damaged.

Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said the manufacturer’s plants escaped with little or no damage.

Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said the timing was extremely fortunate, in that most people were aware of the approaching storm and took precautions.

But emergency responders had difficulty getting to damage sites Sunday, prompting a joint city/county emergency declaration aimed mainly at discouraging sightseeing.

With the afternoon wearing on Monday, there were still more than 7,000 people without power in Howard County. Duke Energy officials said power should be restored to all storm damaged areas by today.

City work crews have been out since the storm, collecting limbs and debris. Trash collection was canceled Monday, in part because of heavy damage to one of the city street department’s storage facilities.

In the path:

‘I just prayed’

The path of the main tornado was somewhere between 100 and 200 yards wide at different points. Jennifer Goins’ flagpole snapped off on the corner of her property, but there was little other damage. Next door and across the street, homes were destroyed.

Julie Howard, a neighbor, had debris embedded in the side of her house, and her backyard shed and fence were destroyed.

“I looked out and I saw the same sky they had in Chicago (on television, when the Chicago Bears game was on earlier). I heard the debris start hitting my house, and then I heard the train sound. I just prayed. I didn’t know if the house was going to explode or what.”

If there was any positive to the devastation, it was seen in the army of volunteers who were up early cleaning up in bitter cold and wind.

Kokomo High School junior Katie Harbaugh was helping Rawlins, while Bill Bates, who grew up across the street from Freda Smith’s house, was helping Smith’s granddaughter, Stephanie Anderson.

Anderson’s kids, Sarah, 9, and Nathan, 15, were combing through wreckage behind the home, gathering anything worth saving. They found the military flag that graced the coffin of their great-grandfather, Harold Smith, a World War II veteran.

“We see people affected by the storm, and their first question isn’t whether they’re OK. … They want to make sure their neighbor is OK,” Donnelly said. “We thank the good Lord for sparing our lives.”

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