NAPPANEE -- One quarter of a mile was the difference between slight damage and total devastation for recreational vehicle manufacturer Gulf Stream Coach.
The tornado that touched down Thursday night skirted the Gulf Stream and Fairmont Homes campus on South Oakland Avenue. If the twister had tracked a little farther south, the RV company would have lost production facilities as well as the units it has been developing especially for the upcoming National RV Trade Show.
"We feel lucky when you consider the strength of the tornado," said Claude Donati, vice president of the motorized division at Gulf Stream. "It appeared to stay on the ground for two miles."
The tornado did some minor damage to the service department, a lamination facility and some storage sheds. It also tossed around about 40 or 50 travel trailers.
A few blocks down the road, the luck did not hold for Franklin Coach Co.
The tornado destroyed four production buildings and the corporate headquarters. Rick Abel, one of the co-owners of the RV maker, spent part of Friday salvaging items from his office and loading them onto a flat-bed truck.
Started by Abel's father, Paul, in 1945, Franklin was one of the oldest trailer companies in Elkhart County. Now Rick Abel and his brothers cannot even think about reconstruction, having first to determine the total damage, insurance coverage and debris removal.
The new Martin's Super Market at 242 N. Oakland Ave. opened about two hours late Friday but the building was untouched by the powerful storm, according to Cindy Kaplan, spokeswoman for the South Bend-based grocery chain.
Extra staff from other Martin's stores were being sent to the Nappanee location so the regular crew could leave to clean up their homes or their neighborhoods. In addition, many of those employees heading for the southern Elkhart County town were loading their vehicles with essentials like bottles of water and loaves of bread to keep the store supplied in case delivery trucks were not allowed through.
"Our primary goal is to be available for the needs of the community," Kaplan said.
Downtown at 551 E. Market St., the staff at the Martin Hardware store hung an open sign in the window and worked by the light of lanterns. Customers were coming in to buy batteries, flashlights, phone lines and extension cords, said Amanda Graber, employee of the business.
"People are pretty subdued," she said. "Right now it's kind of quiet. It's a different type of feeling. They are not the regular jolly people. Everybody is more cautious."
At the time of the tornado, a security crew was patrolling at Gulf Stream and a small team of workers was inside the Martin's Super Market but, Donati and Kaplan said, no one suffered any injuries.
Also, none of Franklin's 65 employees were working when the storm plowed past.
Donati was fearful most of Thursday evening that the storm would damage his home in Granger. His relief was interrupted at 12:30 a.m. when Gulf Stream officials called.
He was at the Nappanee operation by 1:30 a.m. and later in the morning he was fielding calls from suppliers as well as competitors wanting to help.
"We are surprised," Donati said of the offers of assistance from other RV makers, "but we appreciate it."
Truth reporter Kurt Ackerson contributed to this story.
Contact Marilyn Odendahl at email@example.com.