NAPPANEE — In a way, those faceless bureaucrats in Washington helped pull a community together five years ago following a devastating nighttime tornado.
Like any other community with significant damage from a tornado, the city of Nappanee sought assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
And despite hundreds of houses either destroyed and damaged and a significant impact on numerous business and industry, pleas for help from the federal government were largely turned away.
Mayor Larry Thompson, though, said the failed effort to win support for federal assistance following the Oct. 18, 2007, tornado that ripped through the city turned out to have some upside.
For some, Nappanee's recovery serves as a testament that communities can recover on their own without federal oversight and funding.
Thompson doesn't go that far, but admits that in some ways “it was good that we didn't” qualify for federal funding.
Instead, the city relied heavily on private donations and turned to the Elkhart County Community Foundation, which provided some money and served as an agency to oversee the fund.
“We were able to move much quicker on our own with our own money,” Thompson said. “All we had to do was be accountable to our group and to the foundation and be fair.”
One of the highlights of the recovery — the massive turnout of about 3,000 volunteers who arrived Sunday — would not have been permitted if federal officials had swooped in with assistance and control, Thompson said.
Allowing volunteers to take a central role in clearing debris would have been prohibited for safety reasons.
But as a result, the town was able to expedite the recovery process.
Two days after the disaster, Thompson said he was advised by then-congressman Mark Souder not to expect much from FEMA, and “for the most part, he was right.”
The disaster didn't meet the threshold for emergency federal assistance because the city didn't lose a major public entity such as a courthouse, school or fire station, Thompson said.
City officials filed paperwork for federal help and waited five weeks before being turned down the day after Thanksgiving. An appeal was made and the rejection from Washington arrived near Christmas.
Media coverage of the rejections during the holiday season, though, spurred an outpouring of private donations.
“As we were turned down by the federal government, the local people — Nappanee, Elkhart County and beyond — just blessed us with cash,” Thompson said.
Donations ranging from $10 checks to large sums from private groups eventually totaled about $695,000 and were used strictly to assist residents with recovery.
The level of giving turned out to be nearly a perfect match. Afterward, about $45,000 was left in the fund and then set aside for future emergencies, said clerk-treasurer Kim Ingle.
For city officials, working to recover from the storm was a daily priority for weeks, if not months.
Ingle, who has been clerk-treasurer since 1984, started getting finances lined up for the city within days. Extra unspent funds from various departments were pooled together. The city then tapped into some dormant funds for housing that originated from the mid 1980s and transferred those into the city's rainy day fund to cover the city's insurance deductible and other costs.
The city eventually received nearly $200,000 from the state to assist in the recovery.
Aside from rebuilding the street department building that was destroyed, the city had to replace several vehicles, and repair a municipal lift station and damaged utilities, Ingle said.
City leaders also had to cope with the loss of revenues from its water utility and the loss of property tax revenues beginning the next year.
They also faced a large amount of overtime as city employees focused their attention on cleanup, Ingle said.
Even though the community has always been close-knit, Ingle said she believes the tornado changed people for the better.
“I think I have seen more teamwork from people since that happened,” she said. “I think people are more willing to help the next guy.”
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
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.