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Indiana Town Begins Recovery from Deadly Tornado

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Residents in northern Kentucky and southern Indiana are cleaning up after a tornado tore through the region early Sunday. The storm claimed the lives of more than 20 people, most of them residents of a mobile home park in Evansville, Indiana. Rescuers retrieved one body today from a nearby pond. Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel says search-and-rescue efforts are still under way there.

Mayor JONATHAN WEINZAPFEL (Evansville, Indiana): There are hundreds of people that live in this trailer home park. As you can imagine, some people may be out of state; some people were staying with relatives; other people were able to get out in time. And so it's been a real difficult job trying to identify or account for all the people that are known to live in that trailer park. In talking to the county coroner, we surmise that there are probably about five or six people left unaccounted for. Now they may be out of state, or, unfortunately, they may have perished in the tornado. We have yet to discover them.

NORRIS: Mayor, I understand you were out at that mobile home park just before this conversation, right before you came in to talk to us. Can you describe for us what you saw?

Mayor WEINZAPFEL: Well, it's nothing like I've ever seen before in my life, just complete devastation, of looking at basically about a 500-yard swath that this tornado took right through a trailer park. Some of the first-responders, who I had a chance to talk to on the scene yesterday, described this as similar to what they encountered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now obviously, it wasn't as extensive, but it's that same intensity of damage that they saw down there.

NORRIS: Tornadoes happen every year in Indiana, but--and when they do, they often strike with little warning. This one struck in the wee hours of the morning.

Mayor WEINZAPFEL: Right.

NORRIS: So I guess there wasn't much time to get the word out.

Mayor WEINZAPFEL: Well, the warning sirens went off about 1:49 AM, and again, 10 minutes later at 1:59 AM. And then the tornado struck the trailer park about 2:01 in the morning. So the sirens went off, but as you can imagine, at 2:00 in the morning, people are sound asleep. There's a storm that's raging outside, so they're--the sirens are competing with the noise from the wind, the thunder, lightning, the rain.

NORRIS: And from where you were in the county, could you hear them?

Mayor WEINZAPFEL: Well, I did not hear them over the storm, no.

NORRIS: So it's possible that people there in the mobile home didn't hear them either.

Mayor WEINZAPFEL: Yeah, I would suspect that was the case.

NORRIS: The city and the county at one point considered plans for a telephone warning system. I gather those plans were scrapped because of budget concerns. Might the county reconsider this now?

Mayor WEINZAPFEL: Well, we'll have an opportunity to review once we conclude our search-and-rescue efforts and our efforts in cleaning up this area. And obviously, one of the things we'll do is we'll take a step back and review how the public safety agencies all performed and how well they were coordinated, what things can we do to try to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

You know, one thing just that I've had a chance to talk to our building commissioner about is how strong are the tethers required to be to fasten the trailer homes to the concrete slabs upon which they reside. You know, we've talked about maybe there's some things that Florida has incorporated, some new rules that they've put in place, that would require stronger tethers to make sure that the trailer homes struck with high winds just aren't thrown hundreds of yards through the air. So there are a lot of things that we need to do in review of how we performed and how we can do a better job in saving lives, should this type of natural disaster occur again.

NORRIS: Mayor Weinzapfel, thank you so much for joining us.

Mayor WEINZAPFEL: Thank you.

NORRIS: Jonathan Weinzapfel is the mayor of Evansville, Indiana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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