Chesterton Tribune

Tornado: Storm rips path of destruction through Chesterton

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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.”

No Sirens

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.”

Initial Response

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 the storm.”

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.

This Morning

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.



Posted 8/20/2009