Finding Normal After the Disaster: Henryville Tornado

Finding Normal After the Disaster: Henryville Tornado

Tornado rips small community apart, then brings it together

October 1, 2013 by Lisa Renze-Rhodes

Just a few feet from Charlotte Higdon’s rebuilt front porch, a breeze gently flutters three flags on tall, thin white poles, scuttling the air around the Henryville member’s home just enough to lift the freshly cut lumber smell and mix it with the loamy-soil scent of her family’s well-tended garden. The smells uniquely identify this small town, combining the comfortable and familiar with the inescapable changes that brought together forces for good.

More than a year after an EF-4 tornado ripped through the community, located 90 minutes south of Indianapolis, Higdon stands firm in her belief that the tornado represents a blessing in her life. “The whole town is better than it was before,” she says. “It was a terrible thing to happen, but so much good has come of it.”

Higdon’s 75-year-old husband J.T., who unexpectedly passed away in August, shared his wife’s belief. In a July interview with Angie’s List Magazine, J.T. offered praise for the friendships that resulted from the storm, saying it helped strengthen old ones and served as a catalyst to form new.

Healing for the Higdons started when family members used markers to recall special memories on the walls of the tornado-damaged home. (Photo by Lisa Renze-Rhodes)

“There are people in this town I didn’t know. ” J.T. said, as he cheerfully showed off his monster garden, home to everything needed for fresh salsa, plus hundreds of other plants. “And it just wasn’t the town,” he continued. “We had people from 20 states come in to help.”

He considered one of those new friends to be Mike Strong, project manager for highly rated Fentress Builders in Indianapolis, the company the Higdons hired to rebuild. And for as much as the Higdons considered Strong to be like family during the eight months it took to rebuild their home, Strong reciprocated that admiration for the couple. “That family, I fell in love with them,” Strong says. “J.T. was such a good person, he was an amazing guy.”

The weaving of those lives from strangers to friends began on March 2, 2012, with a single question: “Are the doors to the church basement open?” That’s the query the Higdons’ son, Tom, a Clark County sheriff’s deputy, put to his father as the tornado zeroed in on the town of nearly 2,000. The door to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church was open, his father replied, to prepare for a Lenten fish fry that night. Go there, the son told the father. “By the time I got up to the stoplight, it was just like you see on TV — the sight of this big tornado just coming at you,” J.T. remembered.

Taking refuge in the church saved the lives of many that day, the Higdons say. Stretching 49 miles and lasting 49 minutes, the tornado achieved wind speeds of up to 175 mph at times, ultimately killing 11 people, according to the official storm survey compiled by the National Weather Service. It caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damages, the first billion-dollar weather disaster for 2012, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Yet as quickly as the storm roared through Henryville, it was gone. Though the Higdons’ house sits just five minutes from the church, it took J.T. more than an hour to return home because of downed tree limbs and power lines. At first glance, he said, things appeared to be as the couple had left them. Then he looked up. The storm picked up the roof and sat it back down not quite close enough to where it belonged. Had the tornado lasted any longer, the couple hypothesized, the house would have been blown apart.

So despite things appearing normal, with pictures still hanging in neat lines on the walls, an insurance adjuster deemed the house unsafe, says Vicki Horine, the Higdons’ daughter. “It was OK compared to how bad some things were, but it wasn’t livable,” she says. The Higdons praised their insurance company, highly rated USAA, which services those with military ties. The couple says USAA immediately sprang into action, offering hotel accommodations for as long as needed, and connecting them to Fentress Builders.

Highly rated Fentress Builders of Indianapolis worked diligently to restore the Higdons' 100-year-old home. (Photo courtesy of Mike Strong)

Strong recalls the job as delicate, not only because of the nature of the disaster, but between the time the home was built roughly 100 years ago and when it had to come down, the Department of Natural Resources determined a portion of the land to be in a flood plain. What’s more, J.T.’s parents moved into the home in the 1950s and his father built additions to the house, making the demolition more emotional, since it was a reminder of his parents’ absence.

Clearing documents with DNR, then shoring up the land enough to meet state requirements for the build took approximately two months, Strong says. The actual construction of the 1,900-square-foot home took six months, with a total rebuild cost of $271,000.

Before clearing the site, in an attempt to ease the pain of the demolition, Horine says children and grandchildren alike took magic markers in hand, writing notes on the walls about special events that had occurred through the years inside the home. “Life happened in this house,” she says. “So we had one more family picnic. We had to do something to help deal with that day. It was so hard, so tough.”

Horine says that while she and the rest of the Higdon family — which includes four children, their spouses, and their children — shed some tears, they also see the good that came about because of the storm. “Friendship. Blessings,” she says. “People who lose the human side of anything have lost everything.

“We grew up knowing to serve. Our entire life, we were groomed to do for others,” she adds. “We learned that term, ‘pay it forward’ and we were used to coming together, working together. But we had no idea what working together meant.”


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