From the mayor to county emergency management officials to police officers and Red Cross volunteers, no one involved with the storm will ever forget it.
NAPPANEE — Thursday marks the five-year anniversary of a powerful tornado that ripped through Nappanee — and a time of reflection for local officials and emergency responders who worked tirelessly to restore the city in the storm's wake.
Mayor Larry Thompson remembers touring the city just hours after the tornado hit.
“I was out there around 1 a.m.,” he said. “You had to see it to believe it. The destruction was so shocking. It was hard to believe. Had I not been standing on what I knew was U.S. 6, I wouldn't have been able to recognize where I was at.”
For the people of Nappanee, the days following the tornado brought moments of heartache and uncertainty. Emergency workers and volunteers rushed to the city to set up a shelter, distribute food and start the cleanup process.
“Sometimes you wonder if a plan that looks good on paper will really work,” Thompson said. “I would give the emergency services in our area an A plus. Everybody did what the plan called for. I'm really proud of them.”
A POLICE OFFICER'S EXPERIENCE
Even before the tornado touched down in the southern part of Elkhart County, police officers, firefighters and other volunteers were out and about. Curtis Weldy, a patrolman with the Nappanee Police Department, was working the night shift when the tornado was first reported. While driving on S.R. 19, he heard reports on the radio that a tornado had been spotted to the south.
“I knew I would be in the path if they really did see one, so I got on the road and headed west, and I got broadsided by it,” Weldy recalled. “I remember it was a deafening roar. The car slid around the road, but I wasn't worried about flipping. I was more worried about all the debris banging off the windows. There was an Amish house directly to my left that was completely demolished, and most of the debris from that was hitting my squad car.”
Weldy was able to escape the tornado's path without injuries and made his way back to the command station. Officers were split up into teams with firefighters and paramedics to comb the streets of Nappanee. The breadth of the destruction was overwhelming, Weldy said.
“It's like you hear people on TV say — it looked like a bomb just went off,” he said.
When Elkhart County Emergency Management Director Jennifer Tobey crossed into Nappanee that night, she said the streets were dark and eerily quiet. She reported to the police department where people were busy answering phones and responding to calls for help.
“In a disaster like that, usually the first four to six hours, we consider it somewhat organized chaos,” Tobey said. “It's kind of hard to describe because when you're in this line of work and the adrenaline kicks in, you're in go mode. You're just doing what you need to do.”
Tobey worked closely with emergency management leaders in neighboring counties and cities, Nappanee department heads and Thompson.
“The mayor was perfect, the way he stayed so strong and assured people immediately that we're OK, we're going to be OK and we're going to get back to normalcy,” Tobey said.
Thompson said his top priority during and after the tornado was the safety of Nappanee residents. There were no deaths and just a few minor injuries as a result of the tornado.
“That was really a blessing,” he said. “There was an outpouring of love for Nappanee and the victims of the tornado.”
With any large-scale disaster, there are lessons to be learned, noted Deb Moore, who served as the disaster director for Elkhart County's chapter of the American Red Cross.
“No matter how prepared you are, there are always things that you can improve on,” Moore said. “The Elkhart County chapter has always been ready, but since the Nappanee tornado, we are prepared even more. Hopefully, Nappanee will never need our assistance again, but if they do, we'll be there.”
Moore helped set up a shelter at Nappanee Missionary Church that was open for about a week after the tornado. Corrie Stahly, a Red Cross volunteer, headed up food preparation and distribution efforts. Stahly deployed volunteers to deliver meals to people in other areas of the city, including police officers and firefighters who were working long hours.
“It was such a gratifying experience to be able to help out,” Stahly said.
Though Moore said the Red Cross's response to the tornado was quick and efficient, the organization has taken steps to improve even more. Following the tornado, the Red Cross placed five trailers, each filled with enough supplies for 50 people, in Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury, Nappanee and LaGrange. Each trailer is stocked with cots, blankets and paperwork.
Moore said the Red Cross also focused on recruiting volunteers throughout the county and partnering with churches to train people who would be able to help out in a natural disaster at a minute's notice.
Thompson views the 2007 tornado as a learning experience. Not long after the storm, the city added three new tornado sirens to the five it already had. Nappanee also bought a siren for the town of Bourbon in Marshall County. The sirens in Nappanee are tested once a month, but Thompson said they will soon start testing them weekly.
“I think emergency management learned a lot from this tornado,” he said. “I think it made us stronger if we should ever have another incident like that.”
Without federal help, city of Nappanee pulled together in recovery
Amish outlook:A better sense of community arose from destruction
Nappanee tornado hit with unusual intensity, unexpected time of day
Nappanee families bounced back, but still feel effects of storm
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.