What did people hear?
At 7:35 p.m.., the roar of a freight train.
Throughout the night, the low grumble of portable generators.
At dawn, the thump-thump-thump of news choppers.
This morning, chainsaws.
What didn’t people hear?
Tornado sirens. At this point, no one knows why.
An extraordinarily well defined debris path: bounded to the west by Ninth
Street, to the east by Fifth Street, beginning roughly to the south at
1100N, and taking a hopping, skipping, slicing northeasterly route to 100E
just south of U.S. Highway 20.
And in that path, like a war zone, terrific if arbitrary damage: downed
utility poles and snaking power lines; sheered trees protruding from the
ground like spears; aluminum siding impaled by tree limbs; crushed roofs,
missing roofs, de-shingled roofs.
But miraculously--as of deadline today--no injuries reported beyond minor
scrapes, scratches, and bruises.
Among the most severely damaged: three quarters of the Goldsborough
Gymnasium at Chesterton Middle School, right now exposed to open sky; the
apartment complex at Third Street and Brown Ave.,, “catastrophically
damaged,” in the words of Chesterton Town Manager Bernie Doyle; the roof of
the Accucast Industries facility--relocated to its current site, the old
Pioneer Lumber building on Grant Ave., after a devastating fire in
2007--peeled clean off.
And two homes at the extreme northeast terminus of the debris path, one of
them belonging to Town Council President Emerson DeLaney, R-5th.
“Let me tell you, honestly tell you, I’ve been in a tornado,” DeLaney said.
“I’d just locked up the shop and had turned onto Indian Boundary. The sky
was an eerie color. I could see a cloud, one gray cloud, really strange. I
called home, told them to get in the basement. I blew the light at Indian
Boundary and 49 and then saw it. It was a funnel, very fat. You could see
the whole thing turning, the debris being carried up. It crossed 94 right
next to me. I pulled into my driveway, under a tree, got out of the truck.
Mulch, tree limbs, were shooting past me. The first thing was the pressure
in the air. Then the sound. Freight train? Okay, freight train. It went
between my house and my neighbor’s.”
DeLaney’s neighbor’s brick house: leveled. His own: crippled.
In fact the National Weather Service (NWS) has not officially called
Wednesday’s storm a tornado, although at 7:32 p.m. it posted to its website
a Weathernet Sensor recording of a “wind gust . . . possibly tornadic . . .
of 105 mph,” with “significant damage in the Town of Chesterton.”
At 6:30 a.m. today Andy Boxell of the NWS said that a survey team was being
dispatched to Chesterton to make an assessment. “They’ll be looking for a
signature in the debris,” he said. “Whether there’s a turning in the damage,
any twisting of trees, a convergent damage path of debris coming together in
a central point as opposed to being spread out.”
Tornado or no tornado, Dunelanders had no advance warning. No sirens were
ever activated anywhere in the county, at least not to the knowledge of Phil
Griffith, director of the Porter County Emergency Management Agency. “It was
a totally unpredicted event,” he said. “The National Weather Service had
issued a tornado watch earlier in the afternoon but it had already expired.”
“This was an undetected event,” Fire Chief Mike Orlich confirmed at a press
conference this morning. “We’re looking into why they were not activated.
There are protocols for their activation, different criteria based on
spotter information. We’re still dealing with the issue.”
Certainly the storm slammed into Chesterton with astonishing speed. Chris
Gilbertson, who lives on South Park Ave. just south of West Porter Ave.,
said that almost as soon as he realized the danger, the danger had passed.
“Just as the tornado warning flashed on TV I heard my wife say ‘Hey, look
outside, how cool.’ Then I yelled ‘Get into the basement.’ It happened so
quick, by the time we were in the basement it was over.” This morning
Gilbertson found a tree limb sticking through his roof.
Gilbertson’s neighbor, Bob Crone, gave a similar account. “It sounded like a
freight train but by the time we got into the basement it was over.” The
Crones lost five trees, three of them big ones.
Mark Stueber, a custodian on duty at CMS, heard a “rumble,” then ducked for
cover but not quite quickly enough. “All I saw is the ceiling going up and
the ceiling coming down. A ceiling tile hit my head.” Stueber’s okay,
although his truck, parked across the street from CMS, was partially struck
by a tree.
Ken Jaeger lives with his family in the CMS neighborhood. “We looked up, saw
the wind coming in so many different directions. It flipped over our picnic
table but left the chair standing.”
Emergency responders mustered immediately, although in the early stages
their efforts were hampered by knots of gawkers, rubberneckers, and
bumper-to-bumper traffic so clotted on Broadway that the CFD in the first
few minutes was unable to deploy its vehicles from the station. “There were
people sightseeing, kids on bikes, live wires down,” Town Manager Doyle
said. “It was very dangerous. I’m very surprised no one was injured after
Chesterton Police, assisted by DNR Conservation Officers, worked to disperse
the crowds, even as they were beginning a house-to-house canvas in search of
casualties. They found none. Twelve members of the Civilian Air Patrol and
Boys Scouts were also knocking on doors.
In the first two hours after the storm, the CFD responded to a dozen calls.
But to no fires.
The CPD was swamped with so many calls it detailed two off-duty dispatchers
to assist the on-duty one, Communications Clerk Sandy Melton said.
The Street Department’s immediate priority was the clearance of roadways,
Foreman Keith Parker said. A backhoe and front-end loader were used to push
trees and limbs to the side and by midnight every street had been cleared
with the exception of those closed by downed wires. Crews from the Utility
and Park and Recreation Department assisted with that work.
Street Commissioner John Schnadenberg had been in Indianapolis at the annual
convention of the Indiana Street Commissioners Association. He left his
motorcycle in Indie and hitched a ride home--getting frequent updates en
route from Parker--and arrived around 11:45 p.m. At midnight he sent his
crews home to sleep. “It was so black and dark it was hard to see.” They
were all back on the job at 8 a.m.
Schnadenberg called the storm the worst in Chesterton since the microburst
in 1998 felled trees throughout town like kindling. “This event is more
isolated but there’s an awful lot of damage.”
Of particular concern to the Utility was the possibility of sanitary sewer
backups, with the loss of power to the lift stations. Those were carefully
monitored by crews and no backups had been reported this morning, Utility
Service Board President Larry Brandt said.
Town Engineer Mark O’Dell--whose early-hours work in organizing and
coordinating the response Doyle called “marvelous”--did say that a minor
bypass of less than 500 gallons was recorded at the wastewater treatment
plant during the switchover from grid power to emergency backup.
With various streets still closed this morning, traffic was heavy on West
Porter Ave. and Broadway as commuters were forced to find alternative routes
to work, while heavy vehicles of all kinds--chippers, cherrypickers, fire
engines, front-end loaders, backhoes, NIPSCO trucks--added to the
congestion. Insurance adjusters were on the scene too as were contractors,
the number of legitimate ones probably already being swollen by fly-by-nighters.
Crews and equipment on loan from the City of Valparaiso and the Porter
County Highway Department were staging in the parking lot of the old WiseWay
Foods at 801 Broadway.
And a secondary canvas of households was being conducted as well to ensure
that all residents have been accounted for, Doyle said.
But it was clear that town officials were only beginning to make an
assessment. Orlich hoped that he would have a solid damage estimate by the
evening. Schnadenberg said that his crews would begin tree removal in the
area of Ninth Street and West Porter Ave. and start moving northeast.
It was too early this morning to say whether the town would seek a
declaration of emergency from Gov. Mitch Daniels, Doyle said, although
personnel from the Indiana Emergency Management Area were on the way.
In the town’s hour of need, Doyle added, neighbors have come and are
continuing to come to its aid: the Town of Porter, the Burns Harbor and
Liberty Township Volunteer fire departments, the DNR, the Indiana State
Police, the Porter County Highway Department, Porter hospital EMS, the Boy
Scouts, the Civilian Air Patrol, and the Porter County Chapter of the
American Red Cross.
Doyle thanked them all.