By SCOTT SMITH
---- — KOKOMO — Freda Smith was trying to get back to her bedroom when the storm took part of the roof off her South Bell Street home. Standing in the hallway next to her bathroom, the 87-year-old was shaken but unharmed.
Brian Harless, his wife Jennifer and their kids took shelter in an underground bunker they’d installed a couple years ago behind their Cedar Crest house. No one was hurt.
“It was the best $3,500 we’ve ever invested,” Harless said.
And Nathan Brandon watched as what he’s pretty sure was a funnel cloud came down at the corner of Poplar and Lafountain Street. He had barely enough time to get to his basement before the roof tore off.
“You could feel it lift up the house,” Brandon said. “We heard on the radio it was 7 and a half minutes out. It didn’t take 7 and a half minutes to get here.”
Dianne Huffman was walking the area around Bell and Ricketts streets, looking for her long-haired tabby, Trixie. She’d been in a front bedroom with her husband, watching as the storm worsened, possibly too curious for her own good.
“I heard a roar, and I said, ‘This is the best storm we’ve ever been in. Then I kind of realized it was too much for us,’” she said.
By the time they opened the bedroom door, the roof was gone and the north wall had partially collapsed.
Again and again Monday, the officials in Kokomo to survey the damage had one consistent comment: It was incredibly fortunate no one was seriously hurt or killed by whatever hit Kokomo.
“I haven’t seen such devastation in a long, long time,” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said. “To walk the neighborhoods is to feel even more grateful in my heart there’s no loss of life.”
Kokomo was the first stop on Pence’s damage tour of the state Monday, but Pence said he didn’t expect to see anything worse. Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly were also present for the tour, which took them through Cedar Crest, down Hoffer Street and over to the scene of the worst devastation, in the 1900 blocks of South Bell Street and South Lafountain Street.
Even without people hurt, the storm damage was heartbreaking.
Phyllis Rawlins was visiting family in Kentucky when she heard her home in the 600 block of East Ricketts Street had been blown off its foundation onto Home Avenue Sunday.
Clearly shaken, Rawlins stood by quietly Monday as members of a local Church of God and family members looked through the rubble for anything salvageable. She and her late husband, Edgar Rawlins, a local pastor, built the home eight years ago.
“We built it for our retirement, and now it’s gone,” she said.
From just west of Webster Street, through the Maple Crest shopping area, through the 1900 blocks of Bell and Lafountain streets, through several businesses along Hoffer, past U.S. 31, through the Cedar Crest subdivision and finally across Goyer Road into the Quail Run subdivision, the storm ripped a wound through the city.
Monday, survey crews from the National Weather Service said they think two EF2 tornadoes, with wind speeds of up to 120 mph, touched down in Kokomo.
One of the twisters tore a track nearly 10 miles long, lifting up and touching down again repeatedly. The second tornado was “short,” according to the weather service.
Kokomo city officials, who were up all night coordinating assistance and cleanup efforts, said 32 people went to local emergency rooms, and only five were admitted. None of those injuries were serious.
Somewhere around 60 homes were destroyed by the storm and as many as 300 homes and commercial properties were damaged. Estimates are 20 to 30 businesses were destroyed. Officials with state and federal emergency management agencies will be in Kokomo for the next several days to get an exact assessment of the damage.
It was the worst storm to hit Kokomo since the deadly 1965 Palm Sunday tornado and it took a very similar path through town, from Maple Crest northeast through the American Legion Golf Course area and out to Cedar Crest. Those who remember the Palm Sunday tornado said it tracked a bit farther south on its way out to Cedar Crest, damaging the Chrysler plants between Boulevard and Lincoln Road.
“Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for what I’ve just witnessed,” U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita said. “The pictures you’ve seen on TV or online just don’t do any of this justice.”
Businesses hit included a Soupley’s liquor store, Eriks Chevrolet, the Hewlett Packard building on East Hoffer Street, Rally’s at Hoffer and U.S. 31 and several others.
About a half mile south from the track of the main tornado, the city’s Fire Station 6 was badly damaged.
Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said the manufacturer’s plants escaped with little or no damage.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said the timing was extremely fortunate, in that most people were aware of the approaching storm and took precautions.
But emergency responders had difficulty getting to damage sites Sunday, prompting a joint city/county emergency declaration aimed mainly at discouraging sightseeing.
With the afternoon wearing on Monday, there were still more than 7,000 people without power in Howard County. Duke Energy officials said power should be restored to all storm damaged areas by today.
City work crews have been out since the storm, collecting limbs and debris. Trash collection was canceled Monday, due in part to heavy damage to one of the city street department’s storage facilities.
‘I didn’t know if the house was going to explode’
The path of the main tornado was somewhere between 100 and 200 yards wide at different points. In the 1900 block of South Bell, Jennifer Goins’ flagpole snapped off on the corner of her property, but there was little other damage. Next door and across the street, homes were destroyed.
Julie Howard, who also lived at the edge of the Bell Street destruction, had debris embedded in the side of her house, and her backyard shed and fence were destroyed.
“I looked out and I saw the same sky they had in Chicago (on television, when the Chicago Bears game was on earlier). I heard the debris start hitting my house, and then I heard the train sound. I just prayed. I didn’t know if the house was going to explode or what.”
If there was any positive to the devastation, it was seen in the army of volunteers who were up early cleaning up in bitter cold and wind.
Kokomo High School junior Katie Harbaugh was helping Rawlins, while over on South Bell, Bill Bates, who grew up across the street from Freda Smith’s house, was helping Smith’s granddaughter, Stephanie Anderson.
Anderson’s kids, Sarah, 9 and Nathan, 15, were combing through wreckage behind the home, gathering anything worth saving. They found the military flag which graced the coffin of their great-grandfather, Harold Smith, a World War II veteran.
“We see people affected by the storm, and their first question isn’t whether they’re OK ... they want to make sure their neighbor is OK,” Donnelly said. “We thank the good Lord for sparing our lives.”