HENRYVILLE, Ind. — Two of the last trees in Twin Oaks, a small subdivision in Henryville, Ind., stand tall in Michelle Friedly’s backyard.
Few were left after a tornado swept through Henryville at 175 miles per hour, mercilessly consuming everything in its path.
The mangled trees were plowed in preparation for homes that would be built for the people who lost everything.
People like Michelle.
Although the house’s interior is still about two months from completion, it will be a new home for her and her daughter, and Michelle will be able to see those trees every day from her bedroom.
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It was early in the morning, but the collision of hammers and nails and the vibration of saw against wood echoed through Twin Oaks.
Gina Leckron, director of Habitat for Humanity of Indiana, donned a hard hat as she drove a golf cart through the construction site.
It was Friday, the last day of the Habitat for Humanity Blitz Build. About 250 volunteers had traveled from across Indiana as well as from Detroit and Des Moines, Iowa, to complete the exteriors of 10 houses in five days.
The idea, Leckron said, is to finish these houses in time for 10 families, many of them young couples with children and single mothers who were displaced by the March 2 tornado, to move in by mid-December.
“The houses, at the end of the day, will look pretty done,” Leckron said, except for the garage doors, which didn’t arrive in time for installation.
On Oct. 8, the houses were little more than a concrete foundation. During the course of the week, the volunteers and homeowners had constructed the frames of the houses and erected walls. All the houses had a front door and windows, and volunteers were installing siding.
The Henryville tornado was the most destructive in an outbreak of storms in early March. The wave of tornadoes resulted in 12 deaths across southern Indiana.
The debris was everywhere, Leckron said, and the devastation spanned six counties.
“These families didn’t just lose a house,” Leckron said as she maneuvered the cart through the subdivision. “They lost every single possession.”
* * *
Michelle had been watching the funnel clouds form from outside the apartment, taking photos of the storm.
“You never really think it’s going to hit you,” Michelle said.
As the tornado rolled closer, she realized her apartment, located above a storage facility, was directly in its path.
She ran for the bathtub, where she huddled with her 17-year-old daughter Jessica.
“I told her we were gonna be fine,” Michelle said. “I didn’t tell her what I thought was gonna happen.”
It sounded like a freight train as the tornado tore through the apartment.
Michelle and Jessica exchanged what Michelle thought were going to be their last words.
“We kept saying, ‘I love you,’ over and over,” she said. “A million times.”
And then the chaos ended, and an eerie silence fell over the area.
Michelle stepped out of the tub cautiously, afraid the entire floor had fallen from beneath her. The roof of the apartment was gone. So were the walls.
The apartment, which she and Jessica had moved into three weeks before, was unrecognizable except for the bathtub.
Among the rubble was drywall and wood alongside the remnants of a broken trick-or-treat bucket that belonged to Michelle’s 3-year-old granddaughter, Shelby Fackler.
The new silverware was missing, as was the new entertainment center. The four-wheel-drive Ford F-150 Michelle had bought herself for Christmas had been carried away.
Some items were recovered, like Michelle’s collection of peace sign belts Jessica found a mile from their home and a peace sign quilt Michelle’s brother-in-law had sewn by hand.
Clothes were scattered among the rubble, although bits of insulation from the apartment had been wedged between the fibers of the fabric, making them too itchy to wear.
The most treasured possession lost in the storm, Michelle said, was a 16- by 20-inch Sears portrait of her “grand baby” that had been torn from the living room wall.
“It totally took the whole place away,” Michelle said.
Cell phone towers were down across Henryville, leaving Michelle unable to connect with her oldest daughter, Morgan Lindsey, who lived in a town nearby.
“Nobody knew who was alive or who was missing,” Michelle said. “Everything was gone.”
Since the storm, Michelle and Jessica have been living with Michelle’s sister’s spacious house in Henryville.
“It’s alright,” she said. “But you just need your own space.”
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Habitat for Humanity of Indiana requires its homeowners to contribute at least 200 hours of “sweat equity” toward their new homes.
The way the program works, Leckron said, is that Habitat for Humanity works not only as the builder of the houses but also as a social service and bank. Once
homeowners move in, they receive a mortgage loan from the organization without interest.
When it comes down to it, she said, homeowners usually pay about $500 each month toward their homes, less than some people pay for their apartments.
Though Habitat for Humanity primarily works to provide housing to low-income families, Leckron said there is less than a 2 percent foreclosure rate worldwide.
“And we write the riskiest loans in the business,” she said.
* * *
Michelle was scheduled to complete her 200 hours by the end of the weekend.
She had begun work on her house during the summer, when many other homeowners said it was too hot to dig up dirt for the foundation.
She rearranged her work schedule the week of the Blitz Build so she could work on her new home from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day.
Other than being a mother, which she said comes first and foremost, Michelle has worked as a manager at the McDonald’s in a nearby town for the last six years.
She had never built anything as big as a house and said her hands often hurt after using a hammer all day.
“It’s much more fun building a house than building a burger,” she said with a smile.
* * *
Michelle’s curly blonde hair and rhinestone peace sign earrings dangled from beneath her hard hat as she gave a tour of her home.
Because all 10 houses were Habitat for Humanity builds, they all have roughly the same floor plan, but Michelle’s house, a three-bedroom home with one bathroom, is one of the largest on the block.
Michelle will have to buy a new TV and furniture to fill all 1,200 square feet, and the house is built to withstand winds up to 170 miles per hour.
She’ll buy a new couch for the living room, which is across from the kitchen. The TV, Michelle has decided, will be positioned so it can be seen from the dining table. No one will be allowed to eat on the new furniture.
Shelby will have her own bedroom, which Shelby wants to paint pink and purple and fill with all her toys.
The bathroom is across the hall, and the only thing currently in it is a bath tub.
Jessica’s room will most likely be painted with zebra stripes, and although Michelle hasn’t decided yet, the master bedroom will probably be painted with camouflage or peace signs to match the quilt recovered after the storm.
Between the last trees in the neighborhood, Michelle said, she plans to hang a