Work to repair public buildings damaged by 2023 storms still ongoing

Just below the clock face of the Johnson County courthouse, a network of scaffolding obscures a gaping hole.

Plastic sheeting stretches around the opening on the south side of the steeple. Nearby, ropes and lumber reveal the ongoing work on the structure.

The straight-line winds from storms on March 31, 2023, damaged the iconic courthouse steeple. More than a year later, officials are still working to get it fixed.

A year has passed since the EF-3 tornado pummeled Whiteland, and straight-line winds damaged other buildings throughout the county. Buildings such as the courthouse, the home of the Whiteland Fire Department and the Clark Pleasant branch of the Johnson County Public Library were battered by the storm.

Though progress is being made repairing those, work remains, officials say.

In the aftermath of the tornado, Whiteland town officials focused their efforts and resources on helping residents rebuild. As that process has progressed, their attention has turned to fixing some of the town buildings that were damaged.

The Whiteland Fire Department, the street department and the wastewater treatment plant all were impacted.

One building was destroyed at the wastewater treatment plant, which was in the direct path of the tornado. That building contained some equipment and vehicles that needed to be replaced. The building was pushed onto another building, which damaged the belt press of the treatment plant. The street department also suffered damage to its building and vehicles, said Carmen Young, Whiteland’s director of administration.

The tornado peeled back the roof over most of Whiteland Fire Department’s living quarters, and most of what was inside was destroyed. For months, the department was housed at the New Whiteland Fire Department while leaders looked for a temporary space.

Those buildings still need repairs, though the town plans to address that this year. The fire department is expected to reopen in June or July, Young said. Work on the street department garage is scheduled to start soon, she said.

At the wastewater treatment plant, the delay in fixing storm damage has come from difficulty with certain pieces of equipment.

“There was such a long lead time on getting the parts to fix it — one of the pieces had a 40-week lead time. The part has to be made and shipped over, it takes such a long time,” Young said.

When the tornado hit on March 31, 2023, the storm pummelled the Clark Pleasant branch of the Johnson County Public Library. The newest branch in the library system, it had only opened in 2022.

“Luckily, no one was hurt during the tornado. A custodian was in the building during the tornado, but he sought shelter in a staff bathroom and was not injured,” said Lisa Lintner, director of the library system, in an email.

A few windows at the front of the building were broken out, and the pressure in the building caused damage to the back part of the building, with doors being twisted on their hinges. The storm also caused ceiling tiles to be torn off.

There was a path of debris inside the library from the front door to the patio door. The roof was also torn apart, which allowed water to enter the library in a few areas.

One rooftop HVAC unit was completely torn off the roof and dangling off the backside of the building, Lintner said.

“Still, miraculously, only a few books were damaged,” Lintner said. “Most of the damage to the exterior siding and glass were gouges and scratches from debris thrown against the building at a tremendous speed. Glass from the broken windows and debris caused a lot of damage to the interior walls near the front entrance to the library.”

Repairing the damage cost nearly $500,000, Lintner said. The final fixes were completed in December.

“The Clark Pleasant branch was closed for one week and reopened after the Whiteland Fire Department inspected the building. And even though we had plywood covering many of our windows, I know how lucky we were to open so quickly and be a valuable community service again,” Lintner said. “It was truly incredible to see the town of Whiteland and all of our neighbors working together to begin recovery.”

The damage to the Johnson County Courthouse came not from a tornado, but from the high winds as part of the same storm system. Portions of the steeple’s brick facade on the south side of the courthouse were blown off, spreading debris on the surrounding streets in Franklin. Windows on both the west and south sides were also blown out.

Repairs could not be started right away after the storms as officials had to wait for the county’s insurance company to come through. Additionally, the damage wasn’t an emergent situation, as crews were able to clean up debris and board up the damaged windows.

When planning for the repairs, officials had to keep the historic nature of the building in mind, placing a priority on preservation and making sure all specifications were correct before putting the project out to bid.

The commissioners accepted a $419,000 bid from Advanced Restoration Contractors for the repairs in July 2023. The repairs are covered under the county’s insurance policy, and scaffolding to start on the project went up in August 2023.

But once the company started working, they discovered additional damage to the north and east sides of the steeple, said Kevin Walls, Johnson County commissioner. Work stopped as the county commissioners negotiated with insurance on the project, a drawn-out process that delayed the project.

Advanced Restoration Contractors are expected to resume work on the south and west sides of the tower this spring, and have until the end of June to finish, Walls said. The county will then bid out the other two phases of the project.

“It’s been kind of a nightmare, especially with the insurance,” Walls said.

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Ryan Trares
Ryan Trares is a senior reporter and columnist at the Daily Journal. He has long reported on the opioids epidemic in Johnson County, health care, nonprofits, social services and veteran affairs. When he is not writing about arts, entertainment and lifestyle, he can be found running, exploring Indiana’s craft breweries and enjoying live music. He can be reached at [email protected] or 317-736-2727. Follow him on Twitter: @rtrares