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Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard Nappanee resident John Johnson talks Thursday, November 29, 2007 about the tornado that swept through his home as he stands next to the closet where he and his family huddled for the longest 30 seconds of his life. Johnsonâ??s home of 21 years is in the process of being rebuilt at the Jackson Street site.|69155 (JENNIFER SHEPHARD)
Volunteers continue to aid tornado victims despite FEMA denial

Posted on Dec. 3, 2007 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 3, 2007 at 3:01 p.m.

NAPPANEE -- Even without funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the rebuilding of homes and businesses following an Oct. 18 tornado continues, relying largely upon help from volunteers and donations.

Local officials still must decide whether to appeal FEMA's decision not to declare the city a federal disaster area, which would qualify residents for FEMA funding.

On Nov. 21, FEMA announced it would not provide Nappanee residents with funding to help them rebuild. Since then, city officials, including members of the Northern Indiana Tornado Recovery Operation committee, have been looking for other ways to meet residents' needs.

NITRO, which now includes 41 agencies and organizations, was formed shortly after the tornado struck to coordinate the rebuilding effort. Originally NITRO anticipated residents would be granted FEMA funding.

"I think we were disappointed that we didn't qualify," Mayor Larry Thompson said.

On Tuesday, state officials will be back in Nappanee, and Thompson hopes by then there will be a decision on whether to appeal FEMA's denial. Thompson said that to appeal, there must be reason to suspect that some significant damage was left out of the original report.

"Somebody from Homeland Security and FEMA would have to give me a pretty good feeling that we're going to get approval for a declaration, or I think maybe we're just going to have to move forward on our own and put our resources to their best use," Thompson said.

Without money from FEMA, the city is looking at other ways to help residents. One option is pursuing Small Business Administration loans that would allow residents and businesses access to low-interest loans to help them rebuild, Thompson said.

Last week, NITRO met with residents to get a better sense of what work still needs to be done. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, residents met with case workers at the Nappanee Public Library to review what needs had been met and what remained. NITRO case workers will try to formulate a plan to meet those needs, Linda Yoder, director of NITRO, said.

Volunteers have played an essential role in the recovery effort. According to a Nov. 24 NITRO report, 12,971 volunteers have worked 89,590 hours. Direct assistance has been provided to 92 homes. This assistance included boarding up windows, clearing debris and fixing roofs. Five homes and one church have been demolished. The total cash value of the volunteer work and resources is $2,155,766.

NITRO will still depend on volunteers as the rebuilding continues. There is also about $200,000 dollars in the Nappanee Tornado Victims Fund to aid with purchasing materials and other costs. The fund is intended for tornado damage sustained in Elkhart, Marshall and Kosciusko counties. Finding ways to use that money to its full potential will be key, Thompson said.

Many Nappanee residents have found their insurance companies have stepped up when needed.

"I have never seen so much good faith on behalf of the insurance companies at any disaster we've ever worked," said Kevin Cox, president and CEO of the Hope Crisis Response Network.

HCRN has been working with NITRO since the beginning of the disaster.

John Johnson was covered by insurance. Half of Johnson's 21-year-old house was destroyed by the tornado. The entire house had to be demolished and crews are now building a new one in its place. The new house likely won't be finished until late January or early February. In the meantime, Johnson and his family have moved into an apartment.

Ray and Amanda Weaver weren't as lucky.

The Weavers had been living in Nappanee for two weeks when the tornado hit. The house they were renting sustained so much damage it must be torn down. The couple did not have renters' insurance, and many of their possessions were lost. The couple have moved into an apartment and are trying to put their home back together. They're also trying to find a way to fix their truck, which was damaged in the storm. Amanda Weaver also wants to make sure they're able to give their daughter a nice Christmas. But in spite of their losses, the Weavers consider themselves fortunate.

"Everybody keeps telling us that they feel sorry for us," Ray Weaver said, "and I tell them don't feel sorry for us because we got out of it."

In the coming weeks, Thompson and NITRO have some important decisions to make about how to rebuild Nappanee. It would be untrue to say there isn't disappointment over FEMA's denial. But despite the obstacles, they're determined to move forward.

"My plea on day one of the storm was for prayer and patience," Thompson said, "and nothing's changed."

Contact Tom Lange at tlange@etruth.com.