Craig Dunn: Government responded well to Kokomo tornadoes
Tuesday, August 30, 2016 9:45 AM
KOKOMO – Howard County and the City of Kokomo are not the first areas to be visited by the destructive forces of a tornado, nor are they the victims of the worst tornado. They are the victims of three nasty twisters that touched down last Wednesday. When you are in the middle of a tornado you don’t spend a lot of time debating whether it is an F2, F3 or F4 storm that is flattening your house, destroying your business or totally disrupting your day-to-day life.
There’s quite a bit of chance and luck that goes into determining whether you emerge alive from a big tornado. When and where the twister touches down, the time of day, how long and wide the path of destruction and the day of the week are all variables that go into Mother Nature’s lottery of life. Of course, decisions and actions taken by governmental bodies and individuals also help or hinder the ultimate outcome of the tragedy of a tornado.
Very accidentally, I found myself at ground zero in the direct path of the tornado at 3:20 p.m. Sometimes innocent decisions can alter your life. Thankfully, my number didn’t come up on the big old wheel of fortune this time. It was 2:25, and I was in the family room of my home, entertaining my brother visiting from Florida. It was sunny outside but you could hear a faint rumbling of thunder from the west. My brother said quite offhandedly that the next time he visited that he would like to visit my wife’s business. Jill is president of Bona Vista Programs, a large not-for-profit that serves mentally and physically challenged infants, children and adults. I told my brother that there was no reason that he couldn’t visit her organization on this trip. We hurriedly hopped in my vehicle and started for town.
At 2:45 p.m. we pulled into the parking lot at her main building and both of our cellphones began sounding an alarm. Until that point, we had no idea that a tornado had been sighted, heading for Kokomo (pictured above).
After the 2013 tornado unexpectedly hit Kokomo on a Sunday afternoon in November, Howard County government addressed the problem of emergency notification. Unlike many cities of their size, Kokomo had not installed tornado sirens. Instead of sirens, Kokomo City government had arranged for weather radios to be available for its citizens at significant discounts. This was a step in the right direction but didn’t address warnings for those at work, ball parks or in their autos. Howard County government made the significant commitment to fund and implement the Everbridge Mass Notification system. The Howard County Council allocated over $500,000 for its purchase and the Howard County commissioners arranged for the implementation from start to finish.
Once again, until my cellphone sounded the alarm, I had no idea that there were serious problems looming in the dark skies approaching from the west.
We walked into the Bona Vista building where the building’s tornado siren was blaring. My brother received a quick tour as my wife went from room to room making sure that all of the 200 children in the building were safe in interior rooms, huddled with Bona Vista staff members.
While my wife busied herself with making sure the children were safe. I pulled up Tune In Radio on my cellphone and dialed up the Howard County Sheriff’s Department radio communications. I was amazed that our brave deputies were out risking their lives to dutifully radio in the play-by-play course of the storm. After about three reported sightings of a tornado on the ground, you could plot the course of the storm and know that an angry Mother Nature was bearing down on the location where I stood.
The cellphone warning, coupled with the clear locational reports of the path of the tornado, was probably the single biggest factor in saving people from major injury or death. With the children secure and the other numerous Bona Vista facilities notified, my wife, brother, three staff members and I headed to the windows on the west side of the building. We could see swirling clouds and little funnels trying to drop down. From all appearances it looked like the tornado had lifted up from the ground and just might spare a sizable chunk of Kokomo from disaster.
However, this was not to be. After staring into the approaching disaster for a few minutes, it became obvious that we weren’t even looking at the real tornado, which was hidden by a grove of trees. All we could see above the trees was a boiling black cloud and intermittent flashes of bright blue and orange from numerous electrical transformers as they exploded. We couldn’t see the funnel shape of the tornado for the trees. Until we could! First came the swirling debris cloud throwing out small boards and tree limbs. Next came chunks of roofs, more boards and larger limbs. We had just enough time to run to an interior room and take cover. One minute later, it was all over. It was 3:20 p.m.
We emerged to thankfully find that everyone in the building was uninjured. I stepped outside to see a nightmare of destruction just 75 yards from where I stood. The roof of the building looked like a hairbrush with 2x4s sticking straight out the top. A partial garage lay in the parking lot, dropped out of the sky like an empty pop can. Boards, roofing and limbs covered everything. Car windows were exploded from pressure differentials, debris or a combination of both. All of the autos were peppered with pockmarks from projectiles hurled by the fury.
My own office was three blocks south of the main path of destruction. My brother and I brushed the glass out of the seats of my vehicle and made our way through a sea of destruction to check on my business. Three years earlier, in the November tornado, most of the roof and all of the windows of my office were destroyed. This time we were lucky and we dodged nature’s bullet.
As we drove from my office to my home, forced to take a route eight miles to the west before we could find an open road to the north, I was amazed at the quick response of Kokomo’s police and fire services, along with Howard County sheriff’s deputies. It was obvious that they were rolling before the storm stopped. All of these first responders were obviously organized and very well led. They did a great job in initially helping those in the most need and in securing areas with live electrical wires. Later, they provided rescue assistance and helped to secure residential neighborhoods from outside intruders.
My cellphone rang at a little after 4 p.m. It was Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, who wanted a first-hand report of the destruction. After hearing my report, “Tornado on the ground for about eight miles, 300 yards wide, massive destruction,” Holcomb told me that the State of Indiana would bring all the resources they could as quickly as possible to Kokomo and Howard County.
He wasn’t kidding. Indiana State Police and state highway trucks started to pour into the Kokomo community from around the state. The next morning Gov. Pence left his vice presidential campaign to come to Kokomo with Holcomb and Sen. Joe Donnelly to view the destruction and reassure the people most affected. Later, Reps. Todd Rokita, Susan Brooks and Todd Young also came to offer help.
There are many stories of bravery and good decisions that saved lives and protected property. From the caregivers at Bona Vista who herded frightened children into interior rooms, to the barista at Starbucks who moved his customers and staff into a restroom just before his building collapsed, to the teachers and administrators who held their students in place, to our first responders who raced to the scene of disaster, we owe a tremendous debt of thanks. You made the randomness of natural disaster less severe than it could have been.
To the Red Cross, Salvation Army and those charities and organizations that remain unseen until disaster strikes, I say thank you. I will never forget the man who was filthy dirty and exhausted from his clean-up duties, who stood in front of the mobile relief unit of the Salvation Army waiting for something cool to drink. The look on his face expressed a gratitude that words could never express.
Finally, I thank the government that many months earlier made a significant investment in the safety of its citizens and gave us 30 minutes to protect ourselves and others. We don’t thank government very often, but this time they did a job well.
Dunn is chairman of the Howard County Republican Party.