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Twister's Impact on Area 'Brutal'

Stunned mobile home park residents mourn the loss of 18 of their own. 'We can't believe this happened here, to us,' one survivor says.

November 08, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

KNIGHT TOWNSHIP, Ind. — Rescue crews sifting through the debris Monday at a mobile home park decimated by a tornado discovered a man's body in a nearby pond.

Mike Holbert, 28, was among 18 residents of the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park near Evansville, Ind., killed when the twister struck early Sunday. Four other victims died in nearby Warrick County; more than a dozen people remained hospitalized in serious or critical condition.

The tornado touched down around 2 a.m. Sunday as most area residents slept, leaving a miles-long swath of destruction from northwestern Kentucky into southwestern Indiana. At one point, the tornado cut a path that was 500 yards wide.

"I expect the number [of dead] will rise, as some of the patients are in very rough shape," said Vanderburgh County Coroner Don Erk. "It's a horrible situation."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Midwest destruction -- A caption Tuesday on the Today's News page showing damage in Newburgh, Ind., said it was caused by a deadly hurricane. The damage was caused by a tornado.

Residents of the mobile home park southeast of downtown Evansville said the community was a tightknit one, where elderly neighbors routinely helped young families.

Julie Dean, 46, was a teacher's aide at an area school district. Co-workers said she had spent Saturday night baby-sitting Claude John Martin, 2, and keeping his grandmother, 61-year-old Jean Martin, company.

The tornado killed all three.

Several families, such as the Blaylocks, lost generations of loved ones: Isaiah Lee, 5; his father, Brandon, 25; and his grandparents, Beverly, 56, and Warren Eugene, 59.

"These are friends, and friends of friends. They're not just strangers you read about in a newspaper or see on TV," said Julie Dennon, 41, who lives a few blocks away from the mobile home park. "Everyone knows someone who's lost either a home or a loved one. We can't believe this happened here, to us."

National Weather Service officials said the tornado touched down near Smith Mills, in northwestern Kentucky, then jumped the Ohio River and cut a 15- to 20-mile path through Indiana's Vanderburgh and Warrick counties. Winds were estimated at more than 150 mph.

The tornado was the deadliest in Indiana since April 3, 1974, state officials said. On that day, a series of twisters killed 47 people and destroyed about 2,000 homes.

Insurance companies predicted the damage from Sunday's storm would top tens of millions of dollars.

About 140 mobile homes at Eastbrook were damaged or destroyed, and dozens of others have been shifted or twisted off their foundations.

"My phone began ringing at 2:30 a.m., right after the tornado hit," said Kenan Schultheis, vice president of Schultheis Insurance of Evansville. "I've already had 120 claims, and we're only one company. Some of the claims are for minor damage, or for cars. But a lot are for homes that are simply gone."

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who described the tornado as "brutal," declared a statewide emergency and asked the federal government for financial assistance. "The most important work right now is what is being done on-site," Daniels said.

As firefighters and cleanup crews sifted through the rubble, they marked larger chunks of debris -- torn rooftops, sodden mattresses, twisted bathtubs -- with a neon-orange spray painted "X" to indicate that there were no bodies underneath.

More than 200 people were feared missing in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, but by late Monday, officials had located all but a dozen or so mobile home park residents, said Brad Ellsworth, the Vanderburgh County sheriff.

Charline Bridgeman was on the original list of those missing.

Bridgeman was in Mississippi with an American Red Cross team helping victims of Hurricane Katrina when she heard about the tornado. She had moved into Eastbrook Mobile Home Park about six months ago.

When Bridgeman, 68, returned to Evansville late Sunday, neighbors broke the news: Her roof was gone and the walls had collapsed inward, crushing everything.

"My neighbors and I had just been talking about where was a safe place to hide in case of a tornado," Bridgeman said. "I can't believe I left one natural disaster for another."

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