Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 5, 2013

State of shock

Businesses rebuilding in the wake of the tornadoes

By Scott Smith Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — There won’t be any quick reopening at Louie’s Coney Island.

The Kokomo eatery, in the same family since 1937, was destroyed by the Nov. 17 tornado. From the outside, it doesn’t look as bad as some nearby Hoffer Street businesses, but a closer look shows the exterior walls are bowed. Walk inside, and the roof is missing, the heating and cooling ducts hanging from the trusses.

“The first week after it happened, I couldn’t speak. I was in a state of shock,” owner Toula Volikas-Linville said. “And it’s not just me. All of these business and homes were destroyed.”

Louie’s will be rebuilt, on the same spot, thanks to insurance.

“We’re not going for bigger, we’re going for better,” said co-owner Chris Linville, Volikas-Linville’s husband.

But it will take up to six months to reopen. In the meantime, Louie’s employees will have to get by taking other jobs and hoping Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s federal disaster assistance request meets with Federal Emergency Management Agency approval.

City officials have estimated the storms caused $22 million in commercial property loss, a figure which doesn’t take into account lost wages and productivity.

It’s a big hit for a town of 57,000, which has yet to recover many of the jobs lost when the towns two biggest employers, Delphi and Chrysler, went through bankruptcy in the past decade.

“We’re still in economic recovery from the recession, and unemployment here is still high,” city director of development Steve Whikehart said. “And we’re still recovering from the April flooding.”

Lisa Hill, a local Farmer’s Insurance agent, said all of her clients that suffered tornado losses were back in their homes within a week. But her business on Hoffer Street was destroyed.

“To get back to a permanent location on Hoffer Street, the estimates I have is that it would take about eight months. Or I could pay my loan off and buy somewhere else, and that could take until spring,” she said.

Her office on Hoffer, near Home Avenue, had high visibility. Now she’s renting a nice office space on East Boulevard, but she misses having a big sign on a main drag.

“If I could find a location on a main road, I’d move there in a heartbeat,” she said. “I could lose a lot of business in eight months.”

The flow of insurance money into Kokomo means a windfall for local contractors, but to the business owners, every day closed is money lost.

The Kokomo Town Center J.C. Penney store ended up with a 25-foot-by-40-foot hole in the roof, and all of the merchandise inside had to be disposed of, store manager Jerry Barth said.

The store, which is ready to celebrate 50 years in the same location, will probably be completely remodeled prior to reopening, Barth said.

“We’re disappointed we’ll be closed for the holidays, but we’ll be back better than ever,” Barth said. As at other businesses which were open that Sunday, the J.C. Penney employees huddled in fear for their lives as the tornado ripped through. They sheltered, per the company’s emergency plan, in the bathrooms as part of the roof disintegrated.

Then there’s the psychological trauma of losing a thriving business.

Linville, a Kokomo city firefighter, jumped into action when the storm hit. He was on his way to the city’s damaged fire station on East Boulevard when he first saw Louie’s.

There was nothing he could do about the business; he was needed elsewhere.

“There was no time to have a reaction; we had to get everybody safe,” Linville said.

According to an impact statement the city prepared for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, over 100 commercial/business structures reported being impacted by the tornado.

About 57 of those structures fell into the medium/heavy damage category, and the city estimated 47 residential homes were destroyed, with 139 homes suffering major damage and 103 with minor damage. Another 572 homes were affected.

Four businesses along Hoffer moved into temporary rented quarters at Inventrek Technology Park, including Hardie Group realty, Realtors Association of Central Indiana, CRM Properties and Heights Finance, according to Inventrek manager Jan Hendrix.

Other businesses are trying to recover while staying open.

City officials said Eriks Chevrolet, at the corner of Ind. 931 and Hoffer Street, sustained heavy damage to nearly all 200 vehicles in the dealership’s inventory.

And at General Motors Components Holdings, the buildings sustained only slight damage, but the company was forced to cancel a third shift the evening of Nov. 17, causing hundreds of hours of lost productivity. All of that information was taken into account by state officials, and much of it made its way directly into the state’s formal request for federal disaster assistance.

Despite the setbacks, businesses are making plans to rebuild. And it’s likely the rebuilt tornado alley will look far different from what was there prior to the storm.

Volikas-Linville said one of the toughest things will be waiting for the restaurant to reopen. Her mother still worked there every day prior to the tornado. Volikas-Linville said she works there six days a week, and hasn’t had a vacation in years. The restaurant is always closed Sunday.

“I was born and raised in Kokomo, and I went to Kokomo High School,” she said. “This is home. I love Kokomo. Our friends and family are here.”

Scott Smith, business editor, can be reached at 765-454-8569, scott.smith@kokomotribune, or on Twitter, @JasonSSmith1.