Sunday, February 14, 2016

John Johnson carries a platter of cheeseburgers into the house for a recent dinner with his family in their new home. (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard) (JENNIFER SHEPHARD)

John Johnson is seen in this March 2008 file photo as he mans the grill on his new patio with the tornado-ravaged landscape his view for the seeable future in Nappanee. Johnson and his family have returned to the Jackson Street neighborhood, but see daily reminders, including bare foundations of destroyed homes from the October storm. (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard) (JENNIFER SHEPHARD)
Recovered, but not the same

Posted on Oct. 14, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

NAPPANEE — Debris is no longer scattered across streets and yards, and homes have been rebuilt and repaired, tucked into place with flowers and porches.

But to those in the Nappanee neighborhoods ravaged by an EF3 tornado five years ago, life will never be the same.

Missing trees let in the sound of the nearby train, several people have moved away from those neighborhoods and many are missing family heirlooms and possessions that they'll never get back.

“It still looks different,” said John Johnson, who lives on South Jackson Street.

He and his wife, Deb, rebuilt their home after it was destroyed by the tornado, but still see the impact of that day on their community.

“It takes a lot out of you, not only physically, but mentally. One minute you're sitting here in the living room, you're comfortable where you live, you know your surroundings and the safety,” Johnson explained, “and the next minute everything is turned upside down and everything is just altogether different.”


The news station Willie Prescott was watching the evening of Oct. 18, 2007, told him there was a tornado in the area, but that it would miss the Prescotts' neighborhood on Summit Street, he said.

When Prescott saw the flag outside his home suddenly point down parallel with the flagpole, though, he jumped up from his chair and started to close doors before gathering with his wife, Pamela, Pamela's son and their dogs in their bathroom.

“You could literally feel yourself being lifted up,” he said. “It was an eerie feeling.”

Both of the Prescotts thought their lives would soon end, they said. “I was doing a lot of praying,” Pamela Prescott said.

“You just hear the wind crunching and crashing and twisting metal,” she recalled. Willie Prescott described the sound as a train rushing through the house.

Then, there was suddenly “dead silence.”

When they walked out of the bathroom, it was raining inside their home. The roof on the Prescotts' house had moved 2 inches, with rain leaking in throughout the house, and the foundation had moved 1 inch, Willie Prescott said.

“When I opened this door, it looked like something from a horror movie,” he said. The trees were stripped and “gas was flying everywhere — you could smell it.”

All of the Prescotts' windows were broken, glass shards had ripped up their couch, appliances were smashed and bent and trees were torn up outside their home.

With all of that damage, the Prescotts still don't know how their 55-gallon fish tank and five or so fish inside survived.

Nearby, Willie Prescott's sister, Deb Johnson, her husband, two of their three daughters and a boyfriend of a daughter piled into their interior walk-in closet pyramid-style. Their ears popped from the pressure change, John Johnson said, and, like the Prescotts, they could hear the debris hitting the house.

When it was silent, John Johnson had trouble opening the closet's door because the ceiling had fallen and other debris blocked it.

They weren't able to see much of the damage outside at that time of night, but eventually saw a garage door resting on a neighbor's truck and another neighbor's pickup truck flipped up against the Johnson's back door.

“Some of the stuff we had, we've never seen again,” John Johnson said. They never found the canopied porch swing or the children's swing set that had been in their yard. “A neighbor never found his boat,” Deb Johnson remembered.


The Saturday after the tornado, the Johnsons cleaned up some, but Sunday volunteers flooded the community. Some picked up trash and debris. A man with a backhoe helped pull up all of the Johnsons bent fence post.

“We had everything done by Sunday,” John Johnson said. “I couldn't believe how remarkable it was.”

Several families in the Johnsons neighborhood applauded the work and generosity of the volunteers who arrived to help, and to Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson and the city's leadership in the weeks and months to follow.

Some families, including the Johnsons and the Prescotts, had a difficult time finding a place to stay because apartment complexes wanted them to sign leases, when they would be moving home at some point.

A local construction company had finished the Johnsons' rebuilt home in about three months and the Johnsons were grateful to be headed home, though it wasn't the same as before. The Prescotts also built a new home on their property. Warmer weather the weeks after the tornado caused the Prescotts' damp home to overrun with mold. They had the house bulldozed and, after some arguing with their insurance company, were able to reconstruct.


Life may have returned to its usual cycles, but the tornado and its destruction still impact the survivors' lives.

The Prescotts “still miss the old house and the old neighborhood,” Pamela Prescott said. “It's not the same.”

When weather starts to get bad, she said, “I'm listening and I've got everything ready to go.”

The Prescott's dog, a cocker spaniel named Spencer, has changed since the storm too. He used to not get scared by anything, his owners said, but now when the winds pick up or the tornado siren sounds, he's frantic.

That's common for several people who experienced first-hand the effects of the tornado Oct. 18, 2007.

John Johnson said he took it for granted that his family would always be safe from a tornado or storm. Now, when severe weather starts, “you tense up,” he said. The Johnsons and all of their daughters have weather radios. The Johnsons gave one daughter and son-in-law, Janell and Travis Ecklebarger, a weather radio as a gift. Both were at the Johnsons' house the night of the tornado — Travis as Janell's then-boyfriend. When rebuilding their house, the Johnsons also built the interior closet slightly larger than before and reinforced the space.

“You still have that feeling in the back of your mind, 'Would it ever happen to me again?'” John Johnson said.

He and his family had gone to church before, but that day “spiritually woke me up,” he said. “It drew me closer to God.”

“It draws you closer together as a family,” Johnson said, and as a community too.

“We just knew a couple of our neighbors, but not everybody,” he said. “It just seemed like it brought everybody together.”

The Prescotts said too that they are amazed and thankful that, though there were injuries that day, no one in Nappanee was killed in the tornado and that the area has mostly recovered.

“I tell you God had his hand on people here because no one was killed,” Pamela Prescott said. “Angels were here.”


Without federal help, city of Nappanee pulled together in recovery

Amish outlook:A better sense of community arose from destruction

Nappanee emergency workers, volunteers reflect on tornado

Nappanee tornado hit with unusual intensity, unexpected time of day

Quick, “awe-inspiring" volunteer response was instrumental to Nappanee's recovery

Doppler Radar a key in tracking nighttime tornado

Find all these stories and more, including past coverage of the tornado, on our Nappanee Tornado: Five years later page.