A year ago, on Nov. 17, Pamela Roberts sat on the couch in her Tippecanoe County home, watching the NFL’s Chicago Bears take on the Baltimore Ravens.
Her dogs paced around nervously due to the approaching storm. But Roberts, 65, didn’t realize that what she shrugged off as a strong wind was actually a tornado barreling toward her.
In seconds, Roberts and her Indiana home were picked up, spun around and deposited several hundred yards away, leaving her and the dogs buried under rubble.
“I was knocked out, and all kinds of insulation and stuff was in my face, and I thought, ‘Wow. I’m alive,”‘ Roberts recalled to the Journal & Courier during an interview last week.
The storm caused no deaths in Tippecanoe County, but its impact lingers.
Southwestern Middle and Mintonye Elementary schools were sidelined for months. Southwestern remains closed.
Seventeen homes in the Fountain County town of Mellott were destroyed. Dozens of homes and farms suffered varying degrees of damage.
The National Weather Service determined that 30 tornadoes touched down across Indiana during the outbreak – five in and near Tippecanoe County.
Christina Bymaster, a second-grade Mintonye Elementary teacher whose room was severely damaged by the tornado, said the school has come a long way in its recovery.
“It’s certainly nice to have a roof again,” Bymaster said in the confines of her refurbished classroom.
Eerily enough, it looked like school was still in session in some rooms at the damaged Southwestern Middle School one morning earlier this month.
Bulletin boards still hung in the hallways. Notes on whiteboards reminded students of homework assignments due before Thanksgiving break, and the gym board still showed student names and their recorded times from a running exercise.
The building is still packed with remnants of everyday school life, yet students and teachers have been long gone since the tornado tore off the roof over the academic wing and ripped off the gym’s south wall. Their temporary home is still at Wea Ridge Middle School.
Neighboring Mintonye was also hit by the storm, but the Mintonye Pioneers returned home for the first day of school this year.
Students and teachers from both schools were relocated to First Assembly Community Ministries and Wea Ridge within a week after the tornado hit.
Bymaster said her charges still get uneasy during fire or tornado drills. Many kids’ homes were damaged in the storm, she said, so now they take drills seriously.
“It has definitely scared them, and they always ask if it’s real this time,” she said.
Reconstruction costs – not including equipment, grounds work and miscellaneous expenses – at Mintonye totaled $3.5 million, said Kim Fox, TSC chief financial officer.
Bymaster said the storm gave educators a chance to show that they can succeed despite anything, even a tornado.
“Our job first and foremost is to teach the kids, and the (Indiana Department of Education) named us an A-school this year, so we must have done something right,” she said.
Mintonye students and Southwestern sixth-graders spent the remainder of the 2013-14 school year at First Assemblies of God.
“It just wasn’t our home,” said 7-year-old Sawyer Mariga.
It was a sentiment shared by Southwestern students, whose school is expected to reopen next school year.
At a price of more than $11 million, the new digs are going to bigger and better, said Scott Hanback, Tippecanoe School Corp. superintendent.
Plans call for secure entrances as well as a choir wing. The choral suite will replace a rear courtyard and allow for an expanded area for the bands.
A new gym floor, bleachers, updated windows and more bathrooms will also adorn the new campus, which hasn’t had a facelift since the 1980s.
To Southwestern Principal Karen Shuman, the tornado was almost like a blessing in disguise by ushering in the unexpected upgrade.
“It’s weird that what the storm hit is what needed the most updating, and what didn’t need to be fixed was left untouched,” Shuman said.
As those displaced students have adjusted, so too has Roberts, the county resident whose house went airborne.
At her hospital bed after her rescue, she learned she had three compression fractures in her spine.
“My body was squished like that,” Roberts said, putting her thumb and index finger together as if squishing a bug. “The last thing I remember I was tumbling head over heels. I’m pretty damn lucky.”
Doctors were surprised she didn’t suffer more severe injuries. She was sent home the next day and spent six months with her dogs and daughter’s family living in a cramped hotel room.
Since then, she’s been rebuilding, focusing first on replacing her modular home, roof deck and exterior fence.
She’s retired and not counting on much insurance help, so she had to be budget-conscious. She relied on friends to pass along anything they could spare, such as furniture.
Roberts still flashes back occasionally to the horror a year ago. When her furnace kicks on, for example, Roberts catches herself for a split second, flashing back to the moment the tornado swallowed her home.
“Little things will trigger the anxiety,” Roberts said. “You go,’Is that a storm?'”
The big difference now is that she no longer waits to find out. When there’s a storm coming, she said, she packs up her dogs and bolts to a friend’s house in Lafayette.
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