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A defining moment for Nappanee

He was asleep, oblivious to the storm system chugging its way up Indiana to Elkhart County. When the howling started outside his south-side home here, though, rousing him from slumber, Ray Weaver knew it was no ordinary cloudburst.


Posted on Dec. 16, 2007 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 16, 2007 at 2:29 p.m.

NAPPANEE -- He was asleep, oblivious to the storm system chugging its way up Indiana to Elkhart County.

When the howling started outside his south-side home here, though, rousing him from slumber, Ray Weaver knew it was no ordinary cloudburst. Reacting instinctively, he grabbed wife Amanda and rolled with her from the bed onto the floor.

"Then the windows all blew out," he said. "I knew the sound. I knew not to get up and look out the window."

Up in the Blackstone Community, a well-to-do section of newer homes on Nappanee's northeast side, Sandy Thurn, readying for bed, jumped to attention as the city's emergency warning sirens abruptly wailed to life. She momentarily sought out her 20-year-old cat, Tiger, before rushing to the bathroom of her one-story home and crawling into the tub for cover.

Suddenly, the bathroom wall started crumbling, sending cinderblocks onto the toilet, the sink -- everywhere but her body.

"Those blocks just came falling in," said the woman, a retired nurse. "They just fell apart."

Meanwhile, the Odiorne family -- Derek and wife Jennifer; son Jesse, 10; daughter Emma, 1; and dog Sally, a Labrador mix -- huddled under the staircase in the basement of their Blackstone Boulevard home, just up the street from Thurn.

"We heard the wind pick up and then a very loud explosion," said Derek Odiorne, a network analyst who works in South Bend. "You knew exactly what was happening. I said to my wife, 'A tornado just hit our home.'"

It's been nearly two months since the F3 twister that tore through Nappanee with winds of up to 165 mph, causing just five minor injuries but damaging or destroying 363 homes and 109 businesses. It's hardly forgotten, though, and not just because local and state officials continue to wrestle with all the wreckage left in its wake.

Even now, emergency response officials marvel at the minimal casualties.

"There was a huge guardian angel overseeing Nappanee that night," said Jen Tobey, the Elkhart County emergency management director and a central official in the immediate response to the tragedy.

And many believe the event will go down in history as a defining moment in the history of Nappanee, much as the Palm Sunday tornado of April 11, 1965, which devastated Dunlap, is remembered by those who experienced that deadly twister.

"'You remember the 2007 tornado?'" said Matt Tice, a Nappanee Police Department patrolman, expressing the sort of amazement and curiosity he suspects the Oct. 18 event will generate in years to come. "It's going to be like that forever. It'll be a milestone, a time marker, just like the Palm Sunday tornado."

'Tornado on the ground!'

Nappanee Police Chief Michael Anglin, brother Tom Anglin, Nappanee's fire chief, and Jim Sumpter, who heads the city's emergency medical services office, had been monitoring the progress of the storm system that ultimately spawned the Nappanee tornado. That's what local policy dictates in such weather situations.

They've done it countless times over the years, though, and this system didn't necessarily stick out as anything to be overtly worried about, at least initially.

Then National Weather Service officials started reporting "rotation" in the system. On hearing that word, "you kind of perk up a little bit," said Tom Anglin.

Accordingly, the three men made their way to the Nappanee Police Department -- it was shortly after 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 18 -- and dispatched the city's fire, police and ambulance units to monitor the impact of the weather system around the city. Again, that's what policy dictates.

"I said to my wife, 'I'll see you in a little bit,'" said Michael Anglin, recalling his parting words as he left home. "I figured we'd be up here a little bit and come home."

At 10:08 p.m. the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for southern Elkhart County and reported "strong rotation" near Bourbon in Marshall County, about 20 miles south-southwest of Nappanee. Suddenly, this was no garden-variety storm and the threat of a twister was very real.

By 10:17 p.m., emergency officials had activated the city's emergency warning sirens. "We maybe debated it 10 seconds whether to hit the siren," said Sumpter.

A minute later, Nappanee Patrolman Curtis Weldy, westbound on 1350 just west of S.R. 19 in extreme northern Kosciusko County, offered a first-hand account of the twister.

"He screamed, 'Tornado on the ground!'" said Michael Anglin, recalling the officer's radio dispatch.

Weldy offered up his location and the direction of the twister, which rocked the man's car and battered it with debris. It had touched down dangerously close to Nappanee and was trucking along toward the city, less than a mile away, at a clip of 55 mph.

'I was crying'

Back in Nappanee, Amanda Weaver, asleep in bed with husband Ray in their Short Street rental, suddenly lurched awake, the wind howling ominously.

"I heard the news," she remembered, alluding to earlier TV weather reports that had documented the storm's trajectory, "but I underestimated it and I went to sleep."

That's when Ray acted, pulling Amanda with him off the bed onto the floor, just as the tornado passed over their modest neighborhood, one of the first hit. Glass flew, rain suddenly spewed into their bedroom and the couple dashed into the bathroom, looking for a safe haven.

"I'm not scared of much," said Ray Weaver. "But that's the first time I've been scared in a long time."

"I was crying," said Amanda.

The tornado continued northeasterly through Nappanee and people all over the city heeded the call of the blaring emergency sirens.

Kent Walter's wife roused him from sleep and they ran for the basement of their south Nappanee home, which ended up sustaining relatively minor damage.

"It sounded like a train -- it really did -- just like they say," he said. "I thought it was bad, definitely bad. The house was shaking. You could feel the floor moving."

A tornado shelter at First Mennonite Church on the west side of Nappanee near Meadows Mobile Home Park quickly filled, though the tornado ended up sparing that part of the city.

"They heard the sirens and they came running," said Tice, the patrolman.

Brian and Lisa Lewis hid in the ground-floor bathroom of their two-story townhouse near Oakland Avenue and Market Street as the tornado ripped off part of their roof. The pressure change brought on by the twister popped their ears and seemed to suck all the air out of the unit.

"I kept saying, 'This is bad. This is bad. This is really bad,'" said Lisa, a pharmacy technician at Elkhart General Hospital.

"I just envisioned the upstairs falling down on us," said Brian.

Then, as quickly as it came, the twister dissipated on the northeast outskirts of the city, just past Blackstone. All told, Nappanee emergency officials estimate it lasted six minutes, from 10:18 p.m., when Weldy first saw it, to about 10:24 p.m.

But that was hardly the end of it all.

'Sandy, are you OK?'

Homeowners all over Nappanee crept out of their dwellings to assess the damage, crawled out of rubble or waited for help.

A friend called to check on the Weavers and within minutes, they were in Ray's battered truck, headed to their pal's home in Leesburg.

"Our whole block was wiped out, cars up on steps and a van upside down," said Ray, who remembers exiting Nappanee through cornfields to avoid the police roadblocks that had quickly sprung up.

Thurn, who suddenly had a view of the sky above, stayed put in her tub, knowing her brother, who lives just down the street, would soon be along to check on her.

"My brother came down and he's yelling, 'Sandy, are you OK?'" said the woman, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. "I said, 'No, I'm stuck in the bathtub.'"

Derek Odiorne, still with his family in the basement of their home, used his Blackberry to make sure another storm wasn't bearing down on Nappanee. Then he retrieved shoes and coats for his wife and kids and they made their way out of the home -- what was left of it anyway.

"It just looked like everything was put in a blender and mixed up," he said. The twister had blown half the roof off the home, torn out the ceiling over the kitchen and pretty much scrambled everything inside.

Everyone in impacted neighborhoods -- from south-central Nappanee to the city's northeastern periphery -- described similar devastation. It was as if a bomb had gone off.

Downed trees and utility poles covered streets. Broken natural gas lines hissed. Splintered homes with exposed or missing rooms sat forlornly. Modular units sat askew of their foundations. Random debris covered everything.

Fairmont Homes and Franklin Coach on C.R. 7 were particularly hard hit, and Brian Lewis, whose townhouse abutted Franklin, said the damage to the two large manufacturers was obvious. Trailer parts were strewn all over the parking lot of his complex.

"There was everything, air conditioners, doors, miscellaneous metal," he said. "Just metal debris."

Police, firefighters and other emergency officials from Elkhart County and beyond quickly assembled, spreading across Nappanee to assess the damage, secure the city and help anyone in need.

The Odiornes eventually went to the Wakarusa home of Derek Odiorne's parents. Others stayed with friends and Tice said some even stuck it out in their storm-ravaged dwellings.

"We told the people there were shelters," he said. "They just wanted to stay in their own homes, which is OK."

Later, during the wee hours of Oct. 19, Tice ran into a couple groups of kids walking around, curiosity-seekers, and he promptly sent them home. Someone else called in a report of what seemed to be a person in distress, screaming in a field east of Nappanee.

"It was a donkey," said Tice. "He was loose, just running around."

Miraculously, it turned out that no one suffered major injury, despite the extensive damage.

"I really thought we were going to find some bodies," said Sumpter.

The power of wind

Thousands of volunteers converged on the city on the Sunday after the twister to help remove debris and recovery efforts slowly edge forward. Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson is working overtime dealing with the many issues that go along with mending a city. Gov. Mitch Daniels has appealed to the feds for a disaster declaration, which would pave the way for funding to help in the process.

Meanwhile, Brian and Lisa Lewis are living in Goshen, hoping to return to Nappanee when repairs on the townhouse they had rented are complete. They didn't have any renter's insurance and lost many of their belongings.

"We're lucky we survived it and didn't get injured," said Brian Lewis. "We're very unfortunate we didn't have insurance on our apartment."

The Odiornes, now renting a house in Nappanee, have torn down what remained of their home in Blackstone and are rebuilding on the same lot. Though they lost many of their belongings, Derek Odiorne is just thankful no one in his family was hurt.

"It was actually a huge feeling of relief that everyone was alive," he said. "We understand the house is something that can be replaced."

Thurn, now living with her mother until repairs on her home are complete, found her cat, Tiger, the day after the twister, sitting under the bed in her bedroom. She, too, is thankful to have survived.

Still, the Oct. 18 twister isn't something that'll fade from memory and Thurn indicates a new-found respect for Mother Nature.

"It's only been two months, but when the wind gets high, starts to blow, you'll just kind of always have that flashback," she said. "It just reminds you of how powerful the wind is."

Contact Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@etruth.com.



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