Flying in a helicopter 300 feet in the air, Elkhart Fire Department Chief Mike Compton could see it all.
“It was a pretty distinct path,” he said, describing 49 miles of destruction left by a tornado that ripped through southern Indiana earlier this month. “The trees were flattened, and buildings were destroyed. Debris was everywhere.”
Compton is part of a crew of 25 emergency workers who recently returned home after a weeklong deployment to areas ravaged by the deadly twister. The group — Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s District 2 Task Force — traveled to Henryville, Borden and surrounding communities where signs of devastation were around every corner.
“It absolutely took our breath away,” said Elkhart County Emergency Management Director Jennifer Tobey, adding that she kept the people who had died during the storm in her thoughts throughout the visit.
The crew included emergency responders from Elkhart, Pulaski, Marshall and St. Joseph counties who worked in 12-hour shifts lending a helping hand wherever one was needed, Tobey said. They kept in touch with emergency workers in Starke, Kosciusko and Fulton counties who stayed behind in case any emergencies sprang up in northern Indiana, where tornado watches were in effect.
Among the emergency responders to make the trip were 10 firefighters from Elkhart, Goshen and South Bend. They helped rally volunteers, sifted through the wreckage and oversaw controlled burns that allowed residents to set fire to lumber from their homes.
The Borden-Wood Township Volunteer Fire Department’s stations became their home away from home. There, the northern Indiana firefighters relieved the department’s staff of 19 volunteers who had been working around the clock since the tornado hit March 2 to deliver supplies and help with cleanup efforts.
“I can’t say enough about them,” Borden-Wood Fire Chief Paul Brewer said. “They were outstanding. When they came here, it was like they’ve been down here forever. They were really appreciated.”
Brewer said the tornado damaged 61 homes in Borden-Wood Township including 11 that were completely destroyed. He estimated that 80 percent of the debris had been cleaned up as of Wednesday morning.
“It’s going to take a while to get things in order,” said Brewer, who saw the tornado tear through the rural town of 800 people. “We’re trying to help the homeowners get their lives back together. These people have worked all their lives, and now everything is gone. Most of them are just in a state of shock. They’ve lost everything.”
The trip to the southern part of the state was Goshen Fire Department Battalion Chief Ross Kehr’s first deployment in his 34-year career. Training sessions helped refine organizational, safety and planning skills that came in handy during the seven-day visit, he said.
Kehr said the residents he met welcomed the firefighters with open arms.
“We were there to help them, and they were there wanting to help us even though they had lost so much in their lives,” he said. “Actually being there gives you a whole new perspective that you can’t get seeing it on TV or in the newspaper. I hope to go back.”