Chesterton Tribune

One year ago: The Tornado of 2009, A mortality check

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Why the outage?

One year ago today, at 7:45 p.m., that was the main question on the minds of the folks on the far west side of town, as they stepped outdoors after a brief storm to enjoy the last of the day’s sun and compare notes with their neighbors.

A curious thing, the outage. Even in NIPSCO territory, the storm had hardly been the sort of event likely to play havoc with the power: a little thunder, a little rain, not much wind.

After all, it weren’t as though the tornado sirens had sounded.

Only a mile to the east, however, people weren’t just stepping outdoors. They were coming up for air, checking for broken bones, taking head-counts of loved ones.

Their question: not Why the outage?—because the answer to that one was obvious—but more along the lines of Where in the hell did that come from?

Quite possibly, from Michael Boo’s backyard in the 700 block of South Park Ave.—east of 11th Street and north of 1100N—where by his account he lost every tree in his heavily wooded lot.

Call it ground zero of the Tornado of ’09, for a day later, on Thursday, Aug. 20, the National Weather Service (NWS) would confirm that a tornado which peaked as an EF2 was born pretty darn near where Boo lives.

The NWS timeline:

•At 7:32 p.m. the tornado formed as an EF1.

•It quickly intensified as it moved northeast—it would continue to move northeast in almost a straight line for the duration of its life—to collapse the roof of the Goldsborough Gymnasium at Chesterton Middle School. At this point the tornado was packing winds of 110 miles per hour and had a path width of 40 yards.

•The twister then jumped the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks in the direction of Grant Ave., peeling off the roof of a warehouse and tossing it behind the building 15 yards to the north.

•Increasing in intensity, at this point rated an EF2 with winds of 120 miles per hour and a path width of 60 yards, the tornado crashed into the apartment complex at Brown Ave. and Third Street. Continuing in a northeasterly direction, it damaged nearly every house in the Pinney’s Park neighborhood and razed an entire field of healthy old hard wood trees.

•The tornado began to weaken slightly—now an EF1 again—as it approached the eastbound I-94 exit/westbound entrance ramps at Ind. 49, but its 100 mph winds remained substantial enough to turn Rod and Kathi Corder’s cinderblock garage on 100E into a pile of Legos and drive a 2x4 through the side of their house.

•Still with winds of 95 mph and a path width of 30 yards, the tornado crossed Ind. 49 in the direction of U.S. Highway 20, near Hadenfelt Road, where it peeled off the aluminum sheeting of a storage facility.

•Finally, it moved through the densely wooded area of the Ly-co-ki-we Trail in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and crossed U.S. Highway 12.

•Although the NWS believes that the tornado died around 7:45 p.m.—13 minutes after it was born—somewhere between U.S. 12 and Lake Michigan, the Chesterton Tribune did receive an unconfirmed report of rotation over Lake Michigan itself sometime before 8 p.m.

•At its death, the tornado had traveled a distance of four miles and cut a damage swath of around one quarter of a mile in width.

Yet, despite its single-mindedly straight slice to the northeast, the tornado had an odd way of skipping, jumping, hopping randomly, sparing this building while destroying that one, like some bored Eastern potentate of old with too much time on his hands.

Miraculously, no one was killed, no one crippled, no one really even injured. Partly that good fortune was a matter of the weather itself: the rain which preceded the tornado had driven people off the streets. Partly it was a matter of timing: folks were still inside, washing the supper dishes, getting the kids ready for bed. Partly it was just a miracle. Had the whole thing happened only a few hours earlier, on this first day of the school, what in the end proved to be a hardship for some and an inconvenience for most would have been a tragedy of community.

The tornado was still scything its way through Westchester Township when the Downtown began to fill with people, many of them police officers, firefighters, and Samaritan volunteers, but many more of them rubberneckers, whose natural curiosity and understandable desire to bear witness to the event nevertheless bottlenecked the first-response. Then the sun set, the Town of Chesterton was plunged into utter darkness, and anyone still out and about was risking life and limb amid the downed power lines, the tree debris, the clots of shivered building materials.

All night long, in every neighborhood: the low grumbling of portable generators.

At day break, in the air: the thump-thump-thump of news choppers.

By 8 a.m.: the whine of chainsaws.

Ask any Chesterton municipal employee what he or she remembers most poignantly from the 48 hours after, and you’ll hear a story about the volunteers: guys with chainsaws, moms baking cookies, kids packing lunches, folks in groups or singly looking for something, anything, they could do for someone else, folks who never left their name but did leave a mark on the hearts of the front-liners.

And the front-liners came from everywhere: police officers and firefighters from around the county, the Porter County Highway Department, the City of Valparaiso Public Works Department, the Civilian Air Patrol, the Boy Scouts, the Porter County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

An optimist might say that Duneland is fortunate in the frequency with which it has run-ins with the weather: floods, ice storms, blizzards, micro-bursts. Every couple of years or so, we have the chance once again to give our community-mindedness and spirit of volunteerism a workout.

The after-action report:

•211 structures—residences, businesses, and accessory buildings like garages and sheds—sustained damage. Eight were simply destroyed; 54 of them sustained “major” damage, like trees through roofs; and 149 sustained “some sort of damage,” like missing shingles or mangled gutters.

•As near as Building Commissioner Dave Novak can calculate, the Building Department in the weeks after issued a total of 58 “tornado-related” building permits for repair and remodeling.

•As near as Schnadenberg can calculate, the town spent approximately $75,000 on cleanup, including the costs of renting the massive craned disaster-recovery trucks owned by Joe’s Inc. of Valparaiso, of chipping the tons of tree debris, of clearing Coffee Creek, of overtime.

•There’s no telling how much the insurance companies were out of pocket.

•Between 15 and 20 public street trees were lost, Schnadenberg said, and another 20 were damaged. “But very, very many private trees” were turned into kindling.

The tornado would, in the months to come, have a ripple effect on this or that municipal policy.

Most important, Town Council Jim Ton, R-1st—dismayed by the failure to the tornado sirens to activate, following a malfunction of the system at the Porter County 911 Dispatch Center—was determined to acquire for the town the capability to activate Chesterton’s sirens independently of the 911 Dispatch Center and Emergency Management Agency. The CPD now has that capability.

The Town Council also passed an “Act of God” ordinance, under which the owners of legally non-conforming property may rebuild structures lost to fire or other disaster without obtaining a variance from the BZA so long as the old structure’s footprint is duplicated.

And the Street Department—mightily impressed by the City of Valparaiso’s grapple truck—got one of its own.

“I think we were very fortunate because it could have been a lot worse,” Schnadenberg recalled the tornado today. “And I was proud of the way the community came together, clearing, providing food. I think the cleanup efforts went very well. We learned a few things and we’re better prepared now.”

Town Manager Bernie Doyle took three things chiefly from the experience, one year ago today. For one thing: “How fortunate we were that there was no loss of life and no serious injuries.

For another: “How effective the town staff is as a cohesive team working under stressful conditions.”

And then there’s this: “How easily our lives can be altered by serious weather events.”

Call it, Doyle said, a “mortality check.”


Posted 8/19/2010