When Noah Jeffries saw the emergency weather alert pop up on his phone during an astronomy class, he knew it was time to go.
The freshman telecommunications major and Kokomo native had lived through one tornado before, and the possibility of a second natural disaster was even more serious this time around.
“It’s so scary when something so big and harmful is happening at home and you’re far away,” Noah said. “My grandparents and my mom and the people I know still live there — I had to get back and help.”
The EF3 tornado tore through Kokomo the night of Aug. 24, damaging hundreds of homes and leaving thousands without power, according to the National Weather Service. Noah said he made the hour-drive back home as soon as he could, but on the way, he faced the wrath of the storm himself.
“When I was on the road going back home, I was driving through the really bad part of the storm, and I actually passed the tornado to the south of me,” Noah said. “It was very, very scary and I really just wanted to get there and be with my family as soon as I could.”
Like Jeffries, junior business major Tayler Persons, a point guard for the Ball State men’s basketball team, made the trip back home to Kokomo. Although Persons said he didn’t face bad weather on the way, he did have concerns about what he might see when returning to his hometown.
“I was there for the tornado in 2013, and that was just awful to see and be there,” Persons said. “When I got back [to Kokomo], it was still really bad, but I knew how to help this time around, so that’s what I set out to do.”
Persons, a graduate of Kokomo High School, took to social media to gather friends from Ball State and those near the destruction site to meet in Kokomo the next day. More than 200 volunteers showed up, Persons said, and the team spent the day at community outreach centers helping cleanup efforts and distributing supplies to those displaced by the storm.
“It’s very humbling to be here and be able to help my community at a great time of need like this,” Persons said. “I’m also really grateful to everyone who came out to help, even with the little things. It makes a big difference to a lot of the people who were impacted and taken by surprise by the tornado and the storm.”
Although the weather pattern resulted in at least 22 tornadoes in Indiana — with as many as eight in the Kokomo area — the tornado outbreak wasn’t projected by computer models, said David Call, a meteorology professor at Ball State University.
“[Wednesday’s] weather pattern typically does not result in a tornado outbreak,” Call said. “That is why most forecasters and computer models did not project them. In fact, there were doubts that thunderstorms would form at all.”
When a similar tornado hit the same area of Kokomo in 2013, Jeffries' mom, Brandi Jeffries, said there seemed to be little warning about that storm, as well.
“Both of these tornados seemed to come at unexpected times, but this community is really strong here, and we’ve been able to handle the tragedies well,” Brandi said. “I’m really grateful for the volunteers, including my son, who have gone out, without questions, and really helped people around here out.”
The day after the storm hit, Noah said he was up early, helping cut down trees, cleaning up debris and taking water and other necessities to those in the area. The Indiana Red Cross was also at the scene of the destruction hours after the tornado hit, offering support to those in need.
“We are committed to supporting residents in affected areas,” said Chad Priest, Regional CEO for the Indiana Region for the American Red Cross. “We will continue to work together with our Red Cross volunteers and our partner agencies making sure people have their basic needs and know the Red Cross is always there.”
The Red Cross and Salvation Army will continue to work together to ensure residents in the area continue to receive what is needed, a Red Cross spokesperson said.
In the meantime, Noah said he’s happy to be one of the volunteers and is hopeful those in Kokomo will come together in the coming days and weeks to continue cleanup efforts as a community.
“It feels so good to go out and help people who have gone through something so devastating, especially in my hometown,” Noah said. “We’re just going to rebuild again. We’re going to keep our heads high just like we did three years ago and we’re going to get through it as a community.”