The Open Arms of Recovery

Spirit of cooperation, hope and revival prevails in wake of tornadoes

Posted on Apr 13 2012 in Features

A week to almost the very hour tornadoes tore from the sky to destroy towns, homes, farms and families across five southeastern Indiana counties last month, cooperative line crews strung and secured the last strands of new power line needed to bring electricity — and, more importantly, a little bit of normalcy and relief — back to the victims of the storm.

In that week, over 200 crew members from electric cooperatives and contractors from around the state joined Clark County REMC crews, working tirelessly, quickly and safely, to replace 400 utility poles and rebuild over 25 miles of line destroyed in the March 2 tornadoes.

“We’ve put up a lot of line going nowhere,” said Scott Willett, Clark County REMC operations supervisor, noting that many of the homes, churches and buildings that once tapped into the old power lines also were gone with the wind. “But we know people are going to rebuild. This is their home. We’ve put back in place the things they’ll need to go ahead and begin rebuilding, so they can keep moving forward, so they can get back on their land.”

Thirty-three lineworkers from eight nearby electric co-ops rushed to the stricken areas to help. The mutual aid program is coordinated through the Indiana Statewide Association of RECs, the co-ops’ Indianapolis-based trade organization.

It’s the same kind of helping hand reflected throughout the storm-ravaged towns of Henryville and Marysville, Daisy Hill, New Pekin and Nabb. Thousands of relief workers and volunteers poured in from all corners of Indiana and from across the country. An estimated 5,000 volunteers took part in the continuing cleanup across the stricken counties the weekend of March 10-11.

“The outpouring was simply amazing. People just showed up asking, ‘How can we help? What can we do?’” said David Vince, general manager at Clark County REMC.

Local, state and federal agencies were quickly on hand to coordinate rescue and relief efforts. The community room at the REMC in Sellersburg became an emergency operation center.

Church and college groups; volunteer, scouting and veterans organizations; and civic and social clubs from all over brought in food, water, donations of cash and supplies — and extra hands to help search and sift through the rubble, clear roads and cut fallen timber. Truckloads of free food, including a barbecue vender from Kansas, came in to feed victims and workers. Bartholomew County REMC’s Operation RoundUp, supported by its consumers, made a grant to the Henryville schools destroyed by the storm.

The storm

The powerful storm system March 2 spun across Indiana and Kentucky. A series of tornadoes with winds up to 175 mph left 13 Hoosiers dead. The same supercell spawned even more tornadoes in Kentucky where 21 people were killed.

stormmapThe tornadoes destroyed scores of homes, churches, schools and businesses and uprooted thousands of trees. Sections of asphalt were pulled up from roadbeds. Six counties were declared federal disaster areas.

Over 8,000 of Clark County REMC’s 22,000 consumers lost power from the storms. Vince noted the tornadoes sucked some of the poles right out of the ground and took them away. Three electrical substations owned by Hoosier Energy REC, power supplier to southern Indiana REMCs, were destroyed or heavily damaged. These were all rebuilt and working again within a week.

Willett, 42, a former lineman who had been in his supervisor role for only two weeks when the storm hit, is a veteran of four hurricane recovery efforts. “This is every bit as bad, if not worse, in the areas it hit,” he said, standing in Marysville last month amid wrecked homes. “It’s just awful.

“I don’t think the pictures and what they’ve had on the news has done justice to what we’re really seeing,” he added. “To be standing here face-to-face with it is unreal. I’ve seen people just sitting in a chair on top of a foundation with nothing around them — not wanting to leave home. I wish we could do more for them, but we’re doing all we can at this point.”

Willett noted it was emotional to be among the first in the heavily-damaged areas. Lineworkers have to stay focused on the job, though, because of electricity’s inherent dangers. “Out here, you’re in the ‘work mode;’ it’s hard to think about everything. When I got home the first night and talked to my wife, I got a little choked up thinking about what I’d seen that day,” he said. “You get home and it really hits the heart and the guts.”

Stories from the storms, some tragic and some inspiring, attracted national and international attention. Media from as far away as Norway and New Zealand covered the fate of tiny Angel Babcock, who initially survived the storm that killed her parents and two siblings. The 15-month-old was found in a field near her family’s New Pekin home that was destroyed. Two days later, she died of her injuries at a Louisville children’s hospital.

Media attention was also turned to Clark County REMC consumer Stephanie Decker who shielded her two children in the basement of their Henryville home as two tornadoes bore down. As the tornadoes ripped apart the home, a steel beam, bricks and other debris fell on her. She lost both legs, one above the knee, the other above the ankle, but neither child was hurt.

The recovery

Days after the storm, Decker exemplified the area’s “we’ll-get-through-this” spirit. The 36-year-old mom was upbeat and joking with reporters at the Louisville hospital where she was recovering. Her husband, Joe, and kids were at her side. She was released two weeks after the storm and will walk again with prostheses.

“Even though they lost their homes, businesses, even some lives, the one thing they didn’t lose was hope,” Vince said of those in the stricken areas. “They are very determined to rebuild their homes and their lives. I’ve never seen anything like that,” Vince said. “The people have a can-do spirit. They just all pulled together.”

A week after the storm, Easter daffodils bloomed earlier than normal along concrete sidewalks leading to Marysville homes no longer there. Their bright yellow promises of hope rose from the rubble. Likewise, new strands of silver electric wire glistening in the sun provided another promise of hope for the folks devastated by the storms. And appreciative residents offered lineworkers food and their heartfelt thanks.

One consumer dropped off a homemade card in Clark County REMC’s drive-up box. The unsigned card read in part: “REMC Workers: Thank you for helping us through the storm!

“Without the dedication that you have to your job, these last few days for us would have been unbearable. I would also like to thank your family. They have unselfishly given up their time with you so that you may be here with us. When you see your spouse, children and parents next, please let them know their sacrifice has not gone unnoticed. May God bless your time with them tenfold when this is over. Your work in helping our community is greatly appreciated.”

That meant a lot to the crews. “We do what we do because that is who we are,” noted Dave Barton, manager of operations and engineering at Clark County REMC. “We are left speechless when people who have lost everything are so appreciative of our efforts.”

Story and photos by Richard G. Biever, senior editor.

To help the continuing relief effort:
The American Red Cross is accepting donations. If you’d like to donate, send a check to: Clark County Chapter American Red Cross, 1805 E. Eighth St., Jeffersonville, IN 47130. Attn: Phyllis Wilkins, Executive Director.

Please indicate “Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund 384” on the memo line. You can also note “REMC” so the Red Cross knows the donation is from a co-op consumer.

Lady Antebellum to play for Henryville High School

The story of Henryville’s resilience and unity following the tornadoes has earned its high school a post-prom date with Lady Antebellum, the five-time Grammy-winning band.

The country music trio announced March 20 that Henryville won its online contest, “Own the Prom Night with Lady A.” The private concert for Henryville High School juniors and seniors will be May 16 in Louisville, followed by a community benefit. (A scheduling conflict prevents the band from playing Henryville’s prom date in April.)

Not only was Henryville’s own contest submission moving, the band said on its website, but the winning submission on its behalf came from Silver Creek High School in neighboring Sellersburg. Schools in Illinois and Wisconsin also spontaneously sent clips supporting Henryville.

For more information, visit Lady Antebellum’s website:

Top photo: A composite of wide-angle photos paints a 180-degree picture of devastation and revival in Marysville. Line crews from eight electric co-ops and contractors converged to help Clark County REMC restore power to the area.