BY MAUREEN HAYDEN
Jack Murphy isn’t used to getting much attention from a crowd, but when he announced the post office would reopen in this small town ravaged by a deadly storm, he got a round of applause from a church full of his weary-looking neighbors.
“In this town, going to the post office is part of the normal routine,” Murphy said. “And God knows, we need normal.”
Tornadoes that swept through this small Southern Indiana town of 1,900 people stole the normal and it isn’t coming back any time soon.
That’s the grim news Henryville residents heard Monday, as they gathered for their first communitywide meeting since Friday’s storms.
Packed inside the Henryville Community Church, they listened patiently to a long line of local and state officials who informed them of the massive work that lies ahead, along with the immediate problems to overcome: Gas leaks, contaminated water, scam artists, mounds of dangerous debris still to clear, and a pile of paperwork to complete to get aid.
Les Kavanaugh, director of emergency management services in Clark County, tried to offer some comfort by reminding the crowd that the county had seen four weather-related disasters since 2008.
“It’s not even springtime and God only knows what’s ahead of us with the weather,” Kavanaugh said. “But we’re going to get through this.”
That’s the message that Tracy Lutz has been telling her young sons, Nick and Blane, since they were huddled together in a church basement Friday to escape the storm. Despite the massive destruction of property, the town had only one fatality: 62-year-old William Hunter, who died at his home during the tornado.
“We’re just a small town, but the people here have big hearts,” Lutz said.
Among the immediate concerns for state emergency disaster officials is getting the damage documented. A team of people from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is scheduled to be in Henryville today to assess whether the widespread damage to homes, businesses, churches and the town’s school is severe enough to warrant a federal declaration that it’s a disaster area.
“We get no federal help until we get that,” said Joe Wainscott, director of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
While residents were asked to be ready to answer questions about insurance coverage if the FEMA team visits their home, they were also told be careful about eating food prepared by outside volunteers who hadn’t been vetted by local officials.
“We still have a boil [water] advisory,” warned a local health official. “You can’t be sure the food wasn’t prepared with bad water. If you don’t know the source of the food, pass on it.”
Clark County Sheriff Danny Rodden cautioned residents to be wary of scam artists who may come to town after the curfew and travel restrictions, in place since late Friday, are lifted.
“When something like this hits, it becomes a good place for bad guys to prey on,” Rodden said.
Before the week’s end, state officials expect to set up what they call a “one-stop shop” in town where residents can access a variety of state agencies, from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles if they’ve lost a driver’s license in the storm, to the Family and Social Services Agency if they want counseling for their mental health concerns.
For many Henryville residents gathered at the church Monday, being together was comfort enough for the moment.
“There is a lot of good being done here in this community,” said John Powell, who survived the storm by huddling inside an interior hallway of his home with his daughter, Ashley, while the roof was being torn off.
“You see a lot of kindness everywhere,” he said. “I just hope there’s that fever to help in a few weeks when everybody forgets about us. We’re still going to need it.”
— Maureen Hayden is the CNHI Statehouse Bureau Chief. She can be reached at email@example.com.