Nappanee rising from the debris

It's hard to lose a home -- just ask Pam Juarez, whose house was destroyed in an October tornado that ripped through the city.
Posted on Nov. 30, 2007 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Nov. 30, 2007 at 1:59 p.m.

NAPPANEE -- It's hard to lose a home -- just ask Pam Juarez, whose house was destroyed in an October tornado that ripped through the city.

"I couldn't believe my eyes. I was horrified," she said, recalling the first glimpse of what remained of the structure the day after the twister. "I was in shock for about two weeks after that. There were times I'd just start crying."

Imagine the excitement and relief, then, when the two sections of her replacement home were lowered by crane Thursday onto her old foundation on Summit Street, just south of Indiana Avenue. It's a modular structure and one of the first new homes to take shape in the city.

"We're almost back to a normal life," she said, watching as workers assembled the new home. "I can't really describe it in words what it means to me."

It's been six weeks since an Oct. 18 tornado laid shambles to Nappanee, damaging or destroying more than 450 homes and businesses. But with the setting of Juarez's house and ongoing work on many more homes throughout Nappanee, life appears to be regaining a sense of normalcy.

Kevin Cox, who heads up the Elkhart-based Hope Crisis Response Network, a non-profit agency that has been central in recovery and clean-up efforts here, called the work on Juarez's home "a morale booster" and estimates the process could be complete citywide by next March. He's helped in 11 other Indiana disasters and that would be much, much quicker than the norm.

"I would say Nappanee has just done an amazing job of moving on," he said, noting that some communities struggle up to two years after being struck by disaster. "This is a community that just wants to move on with their lives."

No doubt, there have been stops and starts along the way. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said last week it won't issue a disaster declaration for the area that would have paved the way for low-interest loans for rebuilding, though locals plan to appeal. Some report problems in making insurance claims on the damage to their homes.

All in all, though, most agree with Cox's assessment, saying Nappanee may be down, but it's by no means out.

"It's a strong city. We pull together," said Juarez, a mother of two teens who works for a motorhome manufacturer here and has been living with her ex-husband since the Oct. 18 storm. "It's really a blessing to be in this community."

The tornado followed a 20-mile, northeasterly path stretching from Bourbon in rural Marshall County through the northwestern corner of Kosciusko County into Nappanee in southwestern Elkhart County. It ripped through trees and fields and skipped and jumped many other areas, causing the most devastation in Nappanee.

Particularly impacted here were:

* Summit, Jackson and Short streets in Juarez's south-central Nappanee neighborhood, which is dotted mainly with modest, one-story homes;

* A stretch on Oakland Avenue and East Market Street where Franklin Coach, Fairmont Homes and several fast-food eateries are located; and

* The Blackstone Community, an upscale neighborhood in northeastern Nappanee.

Despite it all, there are numerous signs of rebuilding, aside from the work on Juarez's home. The Amish got moving the quickest, rebuilding the damaged and destroyed homes of their brethren within a couple weeks of the twister. Cox said another home just outside northeastern Nappanee is largely complete while several teams of workers labored busily Thursday on numerous houses in the Blackstone neighborhood.

Don Lehman, a planning official for Nappanee, said his office has issued 44 permits since Oct. 18 to rebuild or repair severely damaged homes, while John Mahnken, president of Heckaman Homes, is chomping at the bit to install more homes. The Nappanee firm built Juarez's house and Mahnken hopes to put up three or four more by year's end and a dozen in all in the near term.

"A lot of the holdup is people doing battle with their insurance companies," Mahnken said.

That's not to say the people of Nappanee don't have a lot of work ahead of them. The destruction remains apparent on many houses -- missing shingles, damaged siding, shredded roofs covered with blue tarps -- while other abandoned structures still have to be demolished to make way for new homes.

For instance, next door to Juarez's home -- which suffered extensive roof damage and was pushed off its foundation into the woman's backyard -- a cream-colored modular unit sits far askew of its base, a section of the garage verging on collapse. "This'll come down on Saturday," said Cox, whose group has been instrumental in clearing out damaged homes.

Behind those two homes on Jackson Street, four vacant foundations, already cleared of their damaged structures, await new homes, while several other battered units to the south on Short Street await removal.

Still, for Juarez, who wasn't home when the tornado passed, it was a good day Thursday, a bright spot in what has been a difficult stretch.

"It's exciting to get back to my own lifestyle and just to be back in home," Juarez said. She hopes to move in within two weeks and looks forward to putting up Christmas decorations.

Tara Nusbaum, a neighbor up the street, shares in the glee. Though many in the neighborhood have been forced to leave, at least temporarily, she and her family have stuck it out since their home sustained only light damage.

"It's nice to finally see everyone coming back," she said. "It's lonely."

Contact Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@etruth.com.

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