Small Indiana town rallies to surmount a tornado's wrath

When one of three twisters spun out of a storm cloud near Mary McEnery's house, windows crashed and the walls shook.

But was she scared? Hardly. "I got mad," says the septuagenarian Marengo resident. "I'd just got done cleaning the house and here were pots and pans flying through the living room."

Even after three nights at a high school shelter, Ms. McEnery was unfazed. A Sunday afternoon tornado had destroyed nearly three-quarters of this small town in the southern Indiana hills and claimed one life; meanwhile, several hundred late-May twisters - at least 17 in Indiana alone - killed dozens as they tore across a wide swath of the Midwest and South. But as Marengo residents drifted homeward early Wednesday, returning to decades' worth of belongings strewn across the streets and trailers flipped on their backs, the Zeusian thunder and lightning gave way to a Herculean will to rebuild.

Amid the rituals of clean-up so familiar to these towns up and down America's Tornado Alley, good humor prevailed, and a town sometimes known for clannishness and even snobbery came together over sympathy and saws.

"I'm proud of Crawford County and people's attitudes," says McEnery. "Sometimes it takes something like this to bring people closer."

Not everyone, of course, faced the storm with McEnery's fearlessness, and many in this town of 800 are confronting the fundamental questions of whether to stay, and how to go on.

Larry Jenkins, for one, looked positively agitated as he emerged unharmed from his small trailer, his friends said. "He told me, 'I've never danced so much in my whole life' - I guess his couch was jumping all over the place," says Randall Meriwether, a Meriwether Lewis descendant who discovered the town's one fatality, an elderly man pinned in an upside-down trailer. And when more storms raged across the hills Tuesday night, many residents - at least those whose homes were still standing - ran for their root cellars.

As hundreds of volunteers and rescue workers streamed in from as far north as Fort Wayne, Marengo gave thanks for a Monday holiday that brought many more hands, blankets, furniture, and food.

"I just feel it is my duty to help out," says Carroll Sumners of Adventist Emergency Response, an Indianapolis resident who was in Marengo on a bright, calm, breezy Wednesday morning.

By then, volunteers were hacking at tons of brush and tree trunks that littered downtown, where one-story homes - most of which predate the Great Depression - were leveled and sheep wandered over the fields of nearby farms. The fresh-faced helpers were credited with supplying most of the good spirit. "There were so many helpers, we had to beat them off with a stick," one resident jokes.

On Tuesday, about 100 National Guard troops arrived to help clear debris. Staff Sgt. Mike Peelman says the destruction in Marengo rivals the scene two years ago in Martinsville, Ind., after deadly storms swept through. "The town's pretty beat up," he says. "But we're getting it into shape: This afternoon you'll see about 100 line trucks roll into town."

Sometimes, of course, the coordination wasn't perfect; other times, it was simply strange. One woman who came looking for furniture found a sofa - then realized it was donated by her relatives. And in the early hours after the storm, it was up to the town's small crew of emergency responders to handle the crisis.

Roscoe Hooten was there. Like most Marengo residents, he wears more than one hat. (There's a town legend about a sheriff who, when the accused demanded a lawyer, would remove his hat and purr, "How can I help you?") Town treasurer, firefighter, and convenience-store owner, he didn't sleep for two days as crews struggled with everything from keeping people safe to keeping the sewage plant running. "Most of the homes in this town are older, and many of them just sort of crumpled up," he says.

Fire Chief Phil Jones's home was among those destroyed - but he didn't skip a beat. He, like many here, pushed past his grief to help his neighbors. And as he set up a cot at the fire house, others took the time to drape a tarp over the shards of his roof.

Next up for those who stay, of course, are the hopes and hassles of rebuilding. Connie Halbauer and her husband are already battling insurance adjusters, she says. Only days ago, her new garden fountain earned her a big plaque from the Marengo Garden Club: "Landscape of the Month," read the white wooden sign with hand-painted letters. Today, the sign is still there, but the garden is gone - as is most of the house. Still, she says, they'll rebuild. "We have good neighbors, they're good people. And plus, I hate the city and I love the country."

Which isn't to say that Marengo lacks landmarks to boast of. There once was a cannon factory, a furniture mill, and a lumber yard here, and the Marengo Cave remains a tourist attraction, discovered in 1883 by 14-year-old Blanche Heistand and her little brother, Orris.

On Sunday, though, the cave served a more primal purpose: About a dozen locals rushed in to seek shelter from the storm, waiting out the wind and rain among stalactites, stalagmites, and their own stubborn will to survive.

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