Forty nine years ago a series of tornadoes wreaked havoc on the Midwest. The hardest hit area perhaps was Elkhart County.
A total of 271 people died and 1,500 were injured by the storm system, which spanned from Iowa all the way to central Ohio. Around 60 of those deaths occurred in Elkhart County. The death toll rose in the days and weeks afterward as individuals who were badly injured passed away.
Four F-4 tornadoes touched down in Michiana, with wind speeds ranging from 207-260 miles per hour. According to the curator of the Elkhart County Historical Museum, Patrick McGuire, it was unseasonably warm that day.
At around 6:00 p.m. warnings were issued over the radio and airwaves. Debbie Watters remembered her brother Stevie, 10-years old at the time, watching television and seeing a funnel cloud descend out their window.
Watters herself was only six, however she remembers the moments afterward with vivid detail.
“We knew to take shelter, we ran to our basement. What we didn’t know at the time was when we went to the basement we should’ve crouched down and covered our heads,” said Watters.
Watters, her brother and mother huddled around one another while standing in the basement. Looking back, she believes her sibling could have survived had they taken better cover.
“When it’s all over and you’re able to stand up and look around its just pure shock because everything has changed, within seconds, everything has changed. The whole neighborhood looked like a war zone when it was over,” explained Watters.
Her mother sustained a serious head injury and needed surgery to place a metal plate in her skull. Once the tornado passed Watters was hit with flying debris and received a less severe head injury.
The Watters’ family home on Cole St. just off of C.R. 45 in Dunlap was completely destroyed. That area of town, referred to as Dunlap, was the epicenter of damage. Many families decided to rebuild but Watters said they relocated to a nearby neighborhood in Concord.
Years later, Watters purchased the plot of land where her house once stood and constructed a memorial. Angels and plaques with the names of those killed in Elkhart proudly stand in the midst of landscaping and flowers.
For those who were not around at the time of the devastating tornadoes, pictures and newspaper clippings provide small windows into what happened.
McGuire said the Elkhart County Historical Museum is collecting written statements and artifacts from survivors for a collection to mark the 50th anniversary next year.
“When they tell their stories you can see, they talk about that day and how destructive it is there’s always a pause; it’s not matter of fact, when they say these things even though it was 49 years ago,” said McGuire.