City and county emergency crews worked through the night to assess and clean up the devastation left in the wake of what officials said appeared to be a tornado, which slammed into the city’s south side Sunday afternoon.
Winds of more than 80 mph tore through the city, flipping cars, demolishing homes and businesses, and downing power lines that left about 16,000 Howard County residents without electricity Sunday evening.
Limbs, trees and debris littered the streets, causing city and county officials to ban all vehicle and pedestrian traffic until 6 a.m. today.
Throughout the night, firefighters went door to door in the most heavily damaged neighborhoods, checking for any unreported accidents or injuries.
Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers said Sunday no deaths were reported after the storm, but a number of residents were transported to hospitals with minor injuries.
Rogers said officials have yet to say the destruction was caused by a tornado, but he said officers reported spotting a funnel cloud touch down in the western part of the county.
“I think some of the damage we’re seeing is indicative of a tornado,” he said. “But we’ll leave it up to the National Weather Service to tell us exactly what happened.”
High winds, hail and heavy rain in Kokomo were part of a string of storms that passed through the state Sunday, causing damage and power outages in many towns and counties.
Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter said Sunday he believed Kokomo suffered the most storm damage in the state.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight said the city sustained substantial property damage. He said every street and emergency crew in the county and city were on scene after the storm to guide traffic, help residents and clean up the piles of debris on nearly every street.
Goodnight said he talked to Gov. Mike Pence Sunday, who offered assistance from state agencies such as INDOT and Homeland Security to clean up the city.
Rogers said local and state officials will develop a more long-term cleanup plan in the near future, as officials get a better grasp of the extent of the destruction.
The storm left area residents reeling Sunday afternoon. Many said they were just happy to be alive after experiencing one of the most destructive weather events in the city’s history.
Here’s what people in some of the hardest hit areas of the city went through during the storm:
‘It all caved in on us’
Homes all along Hoffer Street lay in shambles, but one of the most stunning images was a two-story house sitting in the middle of the road at the intersection of Home Avenue and Hoffer Street.
Michael Gardner, 21, was inside the house at of 610 E. Ricketts St. when the storm blew it from its foundation and stranded him and four of his friends in the rubble.
Gardner said the group had just returned home from eating at their church when tornado warnings started coming in. They were on the second floor of the house, so Gardner said they should all head to the basement.
As the five went downstairs, the storm hit in all its fury, and the house began to shake as they started down into the basement. The last person had to jump down the stairs before the house started to move.
They were in the basement, but they weren’t safe.
“It all caved in on us,” Gardner said. “We were buried in rubble.”
He said he was able to push his way out, but then he heard screams. Once he climbed out of the collapsed basement, he saw where the screams were coming from.
A car lay on top of his friend, 25-year-old Melody Vandergriff. Her head was caught beneath the car’s rear bumper.
Gardner and the others tried to lift it off her head, but couldn’t. Neighbors all ran over to help, but it wasn’t until emergency crews arrived that Vandergriff was freed.
All five people were transported to St. Joseph Hospital. Gardner reported Sunday night they were all fine.
“All five of us are OK,” he said. “We’re thankful we’re still alive.”
Bank blown down
Jerry Smith dug through the rubble at BMO Harris Bank on Washington Street in Kokomo until he found the tattered American flag that once waved in front of the building.
He found someone Sunday afternoon to help him fold it up. That flag is about the only thing that could be saved there, said Smith, the bank’s manager.
“When I heard my bank was leveled, I thought people were stretching the truth,” he said. “But it was leveled. I can’t believe that.”
He stepped inside rubble to point out his desk. It was smashed, and his chair underneath was bent out of shape.
He did manage to find one of his business cards in the mess and handed it to television crews who stopped to ask questions.
“I didn’t think it would be like this,” he said. “It’s bad news.”
Kokomo just recovered from a flood, and this happens, he said. But he did manage to find the silver lining in his situation.
“It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “It could have happened through the week, when bank clients and employees were here.”
‘Savior of the mall’
Most of the businesses located at the Kokomo Mall sustained heavy damage. Signs and poles were strewn all over the parking lot.
But thanks to the three large coolers at Buffalo Wild Wings, around 100 people stayed safe during the storm.
Alex Binkley, a manager-in-training at the restaurant, said about 30 people were eating when the lights started to flicker. He knew a storm was coming.
“As soon as I felt the wind beating up against the walls, I knew we were going to get hit,” he said. “All our lights started shaking. All the TVs started shaking. Then the lights went out and the wind hit.”
Binkley and other employees moved everyone into the food coolers. But as the storm raged on, people from other stores at the mall started pouring into the restaurant to find shelter.
As the ceiling started caving in at J.C. Penney, customers ran down the sidewalk and into the coolers. By the time the storm passed, 100 people had packed into the coolers for shelter.
“Every building except ours pretty much got destroyed,” Binkley said. “But everybody here stayed pretty calm.”
Although Buffalo Wild Wings’ sign was torn from the building, he said the inside of the restaurant didn’t sustain much damage.
And now, Binkley said he considers the restaurant the “savior of the mall.”
Angela Small’s neighbors watched from Garden Square Apartments as what they believed to be a tornado jumped from one row of buildings to the next.
She can’t even imagine seeing that.
While they were watching the action unfold, she was hiding in a closet. She was crammed in with eight kids and adults.
“Of course, the kids were scared,” she said. “It sounded like everything was tearing apart outside.”
They made it through the storm without out a scratch, though.
When she went outside, it was a mess. Buildings were falling down. Trees crashed into apartments. And power lines were down everywhere.
“They are totally without electricity at Garden Square,” said Capt. Dale Brandenburg with the Salvation Army. “The power poles are laying in people’s yards.”
He said it will likely take a while to get power restored in that area, so the Salvation Army opened up a temporary shelter at its 1007 E. Foster St. building.
Sunday night, volunteers set up cots for people to sleep on. Children laid out sheets.
One little girl exclaimed, “I feel like Cinderella.”
Another boy said, “This is my first time sleeping on a cot.”
Small brought her family to the shelter for the night. It was too hard to stay in her apartment without power.
“It’s super dark there,” she said. “Super, super dark.”
She’s hopeful power will be restored today. She dreamed about what she would do when she returned home.
“I just want a hot bath right now,” she said.