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Response rapidafter twister kills 23

Hours after a killer tornado cut a 25-mile swath through Indiana and Kentucky, faith-based groups were offering both immediate response and a long-term outlook.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 6, 2005

"We're asking people to stay home until things have settled down."

—Bob Babcock

Hours after a killer tornado cut a 25-mile swath through Indiana and Kentucky, faith-based groups were offering both immediate response and a long-term outlook.

The three-quarter-mile-wide twister ripped across Kentucky and Indiana early Sunday, killing at least 23 people and injuring at least 200. The death toll could rise, since at least a dozen people admitted to area hospitals were listed in critical condition.

Most of the fatalities occurred in the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park in Evansville, Indiana. At least 17 people died there, and more than 100 mobile homes were destroyed, according to reports from the Vanderburgh County sheriff. National Guard crews were called in to assist with search and rescue as it continued through Sunday. Four other deaths were reported in neighboring Warrick County, Ind., where the top floors were ripped off an apartment complex. Damage was also extensive in the city of Newburgh and in the rural town of Degonia Springs. Area farmland was badly damaged as well.

The tornado first touched down near near Smith Mills in Henderson, Ken., then jumped over the Ohio River into Indiana. It hit the Ellis Park horse racing track near Henderson before obliterating many homes across the river in Indiana.

About 25,000 people in both states were still without power by Sunday evening.

Faith-based disaster responders were assessing damages on Sunday afternoon and planned to continue assessments through Monday. Because the tornado lasted for a significant time and stayed on the ground for so many miles, assessments will have to cover a wide geographic area, pointed out Bob Babcock, disaster response coordinator for the South Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Babcock and other responders said they had been receiving phone calls from people who want to help.

They urged people not to attempt to travel to the hard-hit areas to volunteer. "It's still too early," Babcock said. "They're still in the rescue phase. We're asking people to stay home until things have settled down."

Responders agreed that volunteers would no doubt be needed during the long-term but for now, they said, the best way to help is to make a cash donation to a responding group.

Many local churches were opening their doors to shelter people and provide meals for tornado survivors and rescue workers.

Babcock said the close relationships among members of the Indiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) will help facilitate an efficient response. "In Indiana, the VOAD community has really worked together to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees," he pointed out. "That brought all of us together. And so now we're prepared to work together."

The state has experience in dealing with tornadoes, he added. "Last year there was a tornado in Marengo, and we finished the last house in September. We had the last nail celebration there just a couple months ago."

Pastors reported they believed emotional and spiritual care needs would be significant, both immediately and during long-term recovery. Many were concerned about the traumatic effect on children.

Preliminary estimates indicate the twister was at least an F3 tornado with winds of 158 mph or more. It struck around 2 a.m., when most people were sleeping. The National Weather Service issued tornado warnings - some as much as 30 minutes in advance - but many residents were sleeping and didn't hear the warnings. Alarm sirens were also sounded about 10 minutes before the tornado hit, but local emergency management officials said they believed people simply didn't hear them.

Forecasters pointed out that, in this case and others, residents equipped with a National Weather Radio (NWR) receiver - a device manufactured under various brand names and ranging in price from $20 to $200 - could have alerted residents to the danger. Some receivers can be set on mute during the night, then automatically power up the volume when a warning is issued.

Studies have found that comparatively few residents - even those in high-risk storm areas - purchase NWR receivers. But researchers disagree about the reasons why, citing people can't afford the receivers, they are unaware they're available, or they simply don't think a tornado will happen in their community.

Sunday's tornado is Indiana's deadliest since 1974, when twisters killed 47 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Such severe tornadoes are rare in the Midwest in November, forecasters said. Peak tornado season is from April through June.

As the storm front moved along, severe thunderstorm warnings were issued for sections of northern Ohio as well.

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