One Fell Swoop
On Wednesday evening, Brandon and Stephanie Bratcher were on their way to her father’s house in anticipation of a forecasted thunderstorm that they feared might cause hail damage to her car. Her father, New Albany dentist Wilson D. Stemm, had a garage, and the Bratchers planned to park the car there and wait out the storm.
Meteorologists had started issuing warnings two days earlier that a fast-moving cold front would hit Harrison County Wednesday evening, but when a slightly stirring breeze turned into 60-to-70-mile-per-hour winds in seconds, many, including the Bratchers, were caught by surprise.
They were heading down Greenbrier Road, east of Elizabeth, as branches and limbs started falling all around the Bratchers’ car. Stephanie had stopped the car and asked her husband to drive when “all at once the trees fell.”
Of the two or three dozen that fell across Greenbrier, two landed on the Bratchers’ automobile, breaking all the windows except the windshield and smashing the roof, which hit them on the head. The car doors wouldn’t open, so the Bratchers climbed out the driver’s window, scrambled through the branches and ran as fast as they could to a nearby house.
Amazingly, no one in Elizabeth, including the Bratchers, was injured in the storm which uprooted and dropped dozens of trees on buildings all over southern Harrison County.
Robert Barrow, who lives just outside of New Amsterdam, was making sure his doors were latched when the wind peeled a huge section off the roof of a barn across the road owned by Ralph Bliss and dropped it in Barrow’s yard. When Barrow heard the roof come crashing down, he bolted for his basement.
At a fixer-upper owned by Chuck Denzinger, Lisa Tucker, who’s renovating the home, was in the kitchen when she heard a “boom.” She jumped in the bathtub. Several windows on the side of the house were broken and the attic was cracked.
“We were very lucky,” Tucker said the following morning. A tree missed the house by inches, and one broken branch dangled from a hole on the second story wall near the roof. Wind blowing through the house had peeled wallpaper from the walls, something Tucker said she had been working on doing herself.
In some parts of the county, a power outage foreshadowed the wind a couple of minutes before it surged through. Many people said it sounded like a freight train. The storm wrecked so many trees and rooftops that more than a few residents figured a tornado had struck.
A funnel cloud had cruised over Harrison County and Louisville, but there is no indication it ever touched down. Greg Reas, of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency, said the type of damage sustained probably resulted from “straight-line winds.”
In other words, trees, shingles, tin and trailers were tossed just southeast of where they had been before the winds hit.
While the storm front was huge — a line of thunderstorms, hail and intense winds pushing southeast across Indiana — Elizabeth and New Amsterdam seemed to bare the brunt of the storms in Harrison County.
The wind maintained its strength as it headed across the river. In Louisville, telephone poles were splintered apart, leaving about 20,000 customers of Louisville Gas and Electric, Inc., without power.
On Thursday morning, the procession of curious motorists lining S.R. 11 and the Elizabeth-New Middletown Road, Elizabeth’s main thoroughfares, was an unusual sight in the small town. In fact, Elizabeth was bustling with activity. The sounds of buzzing chainsaws and hammers pounding tin roofs were everywhere.
Some decided to capture the aftermath of Elizabeth’s perfect storm on film. Kim Blackman, 22, videotaped the damage. She was home the night before when her family heard a roaring sound.
“My dad opened the back door and about got sucked out,” Blackman said as she filmed a Ford F150 truck and a Ford Escape that were pinned under a fallen tree. Both the vehicles were damaged, and the Escape’s roof had been crushed.
Most buildings showed signs of the previous night’s turbulence.
The roof of the old O’Bannon Hotel was laying on the shoulder of S.R. 11. A tree fell through the brick wall in the rear of the building, collapsing part of the second floor in the process. Through the gaping hole, a second-story door opened in surreal fashion upon the floorless room.
A neighboring house, also owned by Bill Miller, had a tree embedded in the roof and partly in a wall. At 7:15 Wednesday night, Miller’s son, Doug, heard a sound that he thought was a tornado. The next day, chain-sawing the tree that was half-buried in the former hotel, Doug Miller remarked, The hotel’s “done. It wasn’t much to start with.”
The storm also tore the roof off the old barber shop between the two buildings. “We were eating supper when it come through,” Bill Miller said. They heard the wind blowing, but they didn’t know the tree fell until they looked out later. Incredibly, “Not a soul got hurt,” Miller said.
Further down the road at the Elizabeth United Methodist Church, the church office trailer was on its roof. Much of the outside wall had been peeled away, and members were sorting through the debris for salvageable items.
The Rev. Steve Spencer stacked items under a shelter outside. As the storm hit, Spencer’s son looked out the window of the parsonage nearby and said, “Dad, the trailer is gone.” The family didn’t have time to get to the basement. When the trailer flipped, batteries popped out of a clock inside, freezing the hands at 7:20 p.m.
Some items, such as computers, were exposed to the short, but heavy downpour.
After the winds calmed, church members began working after dark to salvage items from the trailer.
In contrast to Elizabeth, or just about anywhere else for that matter, New Amsterdam was silent. Throughout the town, roofs were damaged, and a trailer was flipped and battered into a barely-recognizable heap. Next to the New Amsterdam General Store rested a substantial pile of debris with unknown origins. Even closer to the store were the remnants of its toppled brick chimney.
“It got real loud for just a minute,” said Brock Wesselman, a resident. He, like many, suspected that a tornado might have been in the midst of the storm.
Across the street from Wesselman’s, a huge maple tree in the front yard of Andy Shaffer’s New Amsterdam home had been uprooted, taking a chunk of his asphalt driveway with it.
In Corydon, the oldest and largest pecan tree in Indiana fell on the home of Scott and Heather Gerlach. The Gerlachs had purchased the extensively remodeled home on South Capitol Avenue a couple of months ago.
The tree hit the roof over the bedrooms in the rear before it rolled onto the patio roof, collapsing it, and then landed on a car parked in the drive. The couple was not home during the storm and is insured.
The tree was listed in the Indiana Big Tree Register as the largest pecan tree in the state.