Volunteers work to help Nappanee

Following devastating tornado in October, town focuses on future.

BY MARC HEQUET | NAPPANEE, IN | November 7, 2007

Volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service help rebuild a home damaged when a tornado struck Nappanee.
Credit: Mennonite Disaster Service

Damage was extensive in Nappanee with 459 structures damaged, 78 of which were destroyed.

If there's such a thing as a model disaster, the Nappanee tornado may be it.

The northern Indiana community of 6,700 suffered no deaths and only five minor injuries in the twister that roared through town about 10:35 p.m. Oct. 18.

Nevertheless, the devastation from the storm's 165 mph winds was overwhelming - but so was the response of volunteers who helped get the town back on its feet in days.

Just three days after the twister hit, volunteers four and five abreast lined up for 300 yards, boarding school buses at a local high school to go and help with cleanup.

What Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson said he will always remember is those 3,000 early volunteers deploying to the damaged area in a convoy of school buses behind emergency vehicles with flashing lights.

"The volunteers," Thompson said, "are what made this mess, if you would, go away."

The storm damaged 459 structures, destroying 78. It twisted trees into toothpicks and tore homes in half.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in November that Nappanee, 125 miles east of Chicago, did not qualify for federal assistance. FEMA's decision was expected to be appealed by city officials.

Uninsured and underinsured homeowners and renters are hanging on that decision, hoping for financial aid, while insurance adjusters make the rounds, deciding which structures can be repaired and which must be demolished.

In any case, cleanup is well under way.

"We have hauled a tremendous amount of debris out of here, mulched it, separated metal. We've attacked it," Thompson said. "I think we have set the record for cleaning up tornado damage in the Midwest."

Nearby Amish farming communities may be even further along. They are already rebuilding.

"Those folks are not sitting around and waiting on insurance because they don't have any," Thompson said. "Their neighbors come to help."

Nappanee Missionary Church just outside town served as a shelter in the hours after the tornado struck, putting up 17 people for the night.

"We were always praying for an opportunity to make a difference," said the Rev. Chris Knight, associate pastor. "Here's that opportunity."

He said he was impressed at the calm efficiency with which disaster-relief professionals went about their work, powering up the church with portable generators without the chaos one might expect.

"I learned it's important to have a plan," Knight said. "When disaster strikes, a plan clicks in."

The Elkhart County Chapter of the American Red Cross, however, learned something, too: Remember baby supplies in the first truck out.

"When we set up a shelter now, we will have diapers and bottles and formula," said Linda Nelson, executive director of the Elkhart County chapter. "We never have stocked disposable diapers and bottles, but we had seven or eight crying babies the first night."

The Nappanee Church of the Brethren had planned a pig roast to be held on Oct. 20, but when the tornado struck two days earlier, church members decided to go ahead with the pig roast and donate everything to The Salvation Army's feeding station for the tornado survivors. A number of faith-based disaster organizations, including Brethren Disaster Ministries, Mennonite Disaster Services and the United Methodist Committee on Relief have provided grants and other support to supplement local efforts.

The tornado struck just miles from the headquarters of two disaster response organizations, Church World Service and Hope Crisis Response Network (HCRN) both of Elkhart, Ind.

HCRN founder and chief executive Kevin Cox lives some 10 miles away and arrived in Nappanee about 40 minutes after the storm struck. Cox, who is also president of Indiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, counts 8,000 volunteers and 62 volunteer organizations involved in the cleanup.

Nappanee won recognition from Time magazine in 1997 as one of 10 U.S. small towns in America that reinvented itself. Now it has more reinventing to do. With a municipal budget of $7 million, Nappanee sustained an estimated $1 million in damage to public property and costs to taxpayers. It hopes for state assistance.

Thompson said he and the area's emergency services officials met weekly for years in preparation for such a disaster, and it paid off. What will change? The city will seek more repeaters on radio towers to boost the signal between headquarters and handheld units in the field, he said.

Thompson is scheduled to host a dozen northern Indiana mayors in a Nov. 15 meeting, an event that was scheduled a year ago, long before the tornado.

"Quite honestly, I didn't have a program," Thompson said. "But I do now."

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