Public safety officials reflect on 5-year anniversary of Kokomo tornado

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KOKOMO, Ind – Five years after an EF3 tornado did roughly $10 million in damage, it’s hard to find many visible signs of the destruction left by the storm.

Just after 3:00 p.m. on August 24, 2016, a twister with wind gusts over 150 miles per hour destroyed about 80 homes and businesses and damaged roughly 1,000 more. It was part of an outbreak of severe weather that spawned 11 tornadoes across parts of central and northern Indiana.

Like many people across central Indiana, Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman could hardly believe his eyes when the Starbucks restaurant at Kokomo’s Markland Mall came crashing down with customers and employees still inside.

“Seeing that video, it was just startling to watch it,” Wyman said. “And then when we realized that nobody died there at that Starbucks after that type of devastation, it was a miracle.”

The people inside Starbucks had taken shelter in a back room of the building. In fact, there were no deaths or serious injuries that day. Wyman believes that was partly due to the county’s mass-notification system which had just been installed and activated. The system sent emergency alerts to the smartphones of residents in the area.

“And those notifications went out to people throughout Howard County immediately that a tornado was imminent, and we truly believe it saved lives that day,” he said.

Although the tornado was only on the ground for 14 minutes, it cut an 8-mile path across Kokomo. Steve Rutheford remembers taking shelter in his basement as the tornado sheared off the tops of several trees in his back yard before moving his garage off its foundation and jumping over his house.

“From that point, it probably took 15 seconds, 20 seconds and the sun was out,” he said. “It took part of the roof, just some shingles, and then it went on in and hit Starbucks.”

Five years later, the Starbucks has been rebuilt with no visible signs that the storm ever hit the area. Not far from Markland Mall, it’s easy to see where new homes have been built to replace older ones that were damaged or destroyed by the storm. It’s also easy to see where neighborhood trees were cut short by the strong winds.

While most areas of damage have been repaired or rebuilt, there are still some visible signs of the tornado that hit Kokomo on August 24, 2016.

Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher gives great credit to area first responders who immediately rushed to respond to the situation. Many of them came to help without being called to the area. He says the immediate response did include some problems challenges with radio communications with State Police. That issue, he said, was resolved when the county installed and activated its new radio system to enhance inter-agency communications.

“Any police, any fire, anybody in this particular area that’s coming in to help out with that, that works out much better now that we have a new radio system to help there,” Asher said.

Wyman said the $10 million in damage caused by the tornado did not meet the threshold for federal disaster aid funding. As a result, repairs and reconstruction were funded by local governments, businesses, and organizations pooling resources together.

“Chrysler, for example, put a lot of money into the United Way into a fund that helped people,” Wyman said. “Many businesses, many individuals made those types of contributions, so as a community as a whole we pretty much funded our way through that.”

Howard County Emergency Management Director Janice Hart said the aftermath of the storm also saw the establishment of the “Howard County Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD). The group is a collection of community organizations dedicated to deploying resources to those who need them during times of emergency.

“Howard County is amazing,” Hart said. “The people, the community, we just all pulled together to get back to normalcy.”

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