Tornado-ravaged communities learned valuable lessons from severe storms

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In many areas of Kokomo the scars of a storm are still visible. On November 17, a tornado roared across this Howard County community, tearing apart businesses and homes. According to Howard County authorities, 1,054 homes were damaged. 52 homes were destroyed. 82 businesses were damaged. 11 businesses were destroyed. Amazingly, no one was killed.

That punch and the long winter that followed delayed Kokomo's comeback. Crews have been busy repairing one home on South Lafountain Street.

"We had to replace a couple of trusses up there and straighten a couple of them out. Replace three storm doors. Six windows. Garage door. It's been below zero several times. Yeah, it's been kind of rough working," said contractor Kenny Whitehed.

Across the street, the damage was devastating to the home where 75-year-old Rose Ricks used to live.

"I could have been killed," said Ricks who survived the tornado without a scratch. "It's a miracle."

Wander through her home and you will see what's left four months after the storm slammed into it, punching a hole in her bedroom ceiling.

"I went in my bedroom, turned on the weather and the whole map of Indiana was red. I thought I had to get in the basement. I came back in my dining room. Glass started flying. The roof came off. I didn't have time to think. I thought, that's a tornado," said Ricks.

Ricks was able to salvage some furniture, appliances and her clothes. She has moved to a different home in Kokomo because her South Lafountain house will have to be demolished. Ricks complimented her insurance provider.

"They treated me very well," said Ricks.

The day we visited, it was clear someone had kicked in the backdoor and stolen some things from the vacant home. Ricks suspects thieves may have been after copper wiring in the basement that could be sold for scrap.

One couple that lives on Pontiac Drive in the Cedar Crest subdivision feels lucky to be alive. The Eberharts rode out the tornado while praying in a storm shelter built in the backyard.

"That tornado came from that way (west) and was taking the trees, the roofs, everything," said Eberhart. "I got in the shelter and all you heard was this horrendous roaring. That's when our big tree came down and demolished everything and hit the storm shelter. Took our pool and took our shed. Took everything," said Eberhart. "It sounded like a roaring train. It was horrible. Nothing hit me, thank God. The hairs on my arms were still sticking straight up. It was horrendous. The noise and everything that fell. I hope no one else has to go through anything like that."

Debra Eberhart remembers the prayer she said in the storm shelter.

"Please help us, Lord. Heavenly Father, watch over us. Give us another chance please. Protect us. Just let it be over," said Debra Eberhart.

Eberhart says the outcome might have been different if the storm hit in the middle of the night when the couple was in their bedroom.

"We're lucky. We are very, very lucky," said Eberhart.

Most of the debris inside the couple's home has vanished four months after the storm raced through. Repair crews are making progress, putting a new roof on the home. It may be early summer before the family moves back in.

"I want to be right here on Pontiac Drive. That's where I want to be to live. This is where the girls grew up," said Eberhart.

Eberhart said she is pleased with her insurance company in the wake of the storm, saying she received a check for the contents that were blown away by the tornado.

"They have been very good for us. They were here the next day after the tornado. They've put us up in a home. We didn't have furniture. No clothes. We just left with our wet clothes from where the tornado had hit," said Eberhart.

For some storm victims, there is no moving back. Their homes no longer exist. What's left of them are stuck in trees. Businesses in the direct path of the storm have either closed up, moved elsewhere are still cleaning up four months later. More than anything else, this is what they've learned.

"Don't take mother nature for granted. Pay attention when they say take cover. Be prepared. Listen. Pay attention," said Eberhart.

Tornado victim Jim Leslie provided some lessons learned.

1) To make insurance claims easier, take pictures before the problem (tornado) presents itself. Take pictures of your property and the contents because disaster aftermath sometimes leaves little.

2) Document everything during insurance filing, keep a journal.

3) If you have a mortgage, call the mortgage company as well as your insurance provider. The mortgage company has an interest in your house and will be involved to make sure the repairs will be done correctly.

4) Manage your contractors and make sure repairs are done properly.

5) Work with your employers so they understand you will have to meet insurance agents, contractors, demolition teams.

Since federal disaster aid was denied to residents of Howard County, many storm victims continue to look for help as they put their lives back together. The United Way has started a new program called "Just Ask" for tornado victims. The agency is providing a long term recovery team of volunteers to help with home repairs. Tornado victims can call 211 or 765-860-2861.

This is a community picking itself up, moving forward and thankful it was not worse.