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November 18, 2013

'... and now it's gone': Tornadoes rip through Indiana

Upward of 60 homes, 30 businesses destroyed in Kokomo alone

KOKOMO, Ind. — Freda Smith was trying to get back to her bedroom when the storm took part of the roof off her South Bell Street home. Standing in the hallway next to her bathroom, the 91-year-old 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 Cedar Crest house. No one was hurt.

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

And Nathan Brandon watched as what he’s pretty sure was a funnel cloud came down at the corner of Poplar and Lafountain Street. 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 walking the area around Bell and Ricketts streets, looking for her long-haired tabby cat, 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.

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

“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 Cedar Crest, down Hoffer Street and over to the scene of the worst devastation, in the 1900 blocks of South Bell Street and South Lafountain Street.

Even without people hurt, the storm damage was heartbreaking.

Phyllis Rawlins was visiting family in Kentucky when she heard her home in the 600 block of East Ricketts Street had been blown off its foundation onto Home Avenue on Sunday.

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.

Monday, survey crews from the National Weather Service said they think two EF2 tornadoes, with wind speeds of up to 120 mph, touched down in Kokomo.

One of the twisters tore a track nearly 10 miles long, lifting up and touching down again repeatedly. The second tornado was “short,” according to the weather service.

Kokomo city officials, who were up all night coordinating assistance and cleanup efforts, said 32 people went to local emergency rooms, and only five were admitted. None of those injuries were serious.

Somewhere around 60 homes were destroyed by the storm and as many as 300 homes and commercial properties were damaged. Estimates are 20 to 30 businesses were destroyed. 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.

It was the worst storm to hit Kokomo since the deadly 1965 Palm Sunday tornado and it took a very similar path through town, from Maple Crest northeast through the American Legion Golf Course area and out to Cedar Crest. Those who remember the Palm Sunday tornado said it tracked a bit farther south on its way out to Cedar Crest, damaging the Chrysler plants between Boulevard and Lincoln Road.

“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.”

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

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.

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 over on South Bell, 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 which 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.”

WASHINGTON TOUCHDOWN

A tornado swept across the west side of Washington, leaving a path of destruction and frightened people in its wake. The storm blew through the city turning a quiet Sunday afternoon into a time of terror.

“It hit hard,” said Roger Watson standing outside of his badly damaged home at 501 Sycamore St.. “I could see it [the tornado] bouncing down the alley behind the house. I tried to go out the back to my Mom’s, but it just threw me back inside the house and knocked me down. I curled up in a ball and I could hear the windows blowing out.”

Watson’s home lost its roof, and so did several other homes through the Sycamore Street area. One vacant home was picked up off of its foundation and thrown several feet. The back side of Cracker Powersports was completely smashed with cement blocks thrown everywhere.

Washington Street Superintendent Ernie Evans was convinced the damage was the result of a tornado which was later confirmed as an EF2 by the National Weather Service in Indianapolis. He shot video of the event from his home on Vincennes Avenue as it crashed into the west side of town.

“I saw it, and it threw up debris,” said Evans. “I lost track of it about the time it hit Hudson’s over around the shopping center.”

While there was plenty of damage, authorities had no reports of injuries from the storm, but several residents said they had very close calls.

“I was standing on my porch and could see stuff flying around in the air,” said Tim Garcia of 306 Sycamore St. “I yelled for my wife to head to the basement and I ran to the basement steps. Just as I got there a board hit me in the head. I went on down into the basement. The sound was a roar, but almost as soon as I got in the basement it was over.”

— Washington Times-Herald reporter Mike Grant contributed to this report.

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