The sirens started a little before 8 p.m. on the last night of February. Residents of Perry County, in southeastern Missouri, retreated to their basements — many of them not expecting the incoming tornado with a 14-mile-long and half-mile-wide path. Within an hour, the tornado had killed one man, damaged more than 100 homes and leveled dozens more.
Three months later, there are signs that rebuilding is underway. Structures now stand where fallen trees, busted up car frames, and mangled bits of homes were scattered before. Perryville’s residents are recovering, hiring contractors, negotiating with insurance companies, and even managing the aftermath of severe flooding in April.
Progress in the recovery process depends on a lot of factors. For displaced families,“recovery” is everything from dealing with the insurance companies, to hiring a contractor. For city officials and case managers, it’s about distributing resources to the community and looking at the big picture.
“My grandson is always saying ‘Nana’s house blew away. Nana, when’s your house gonna blow back?’” said Sue Spencer, chuckling about the 3-year-old as she stared at what used to be her home.
She’s only been back to her property a few times since the tornado ripped the second story off her house, and cut up what was left of the first floor. She said being there feels eerie now.
“I would imagine if this house even looked like mine did, it would be harder to let go — but there’s nothing here that looks like mine. Now, I’m just asking God, where am I supposed to go?”
Spencer is 76 years old, but has a girlish energy. She moved into her Perryville home with three of her eight children and late husband, Richard, in the summer of 1986.
Spencer pointed to the now-empty spot on the first floor where she would have been sitting that night had she not been in Chicago recovering from hip surgery. “It’s a very strange feeling,” she added. “Maybe it'll set in six months from now, but I don’t know how I feel truthfully. I’m just empty right now.”
But for a person whose home was all but flattened, Spencer is surprisingly upbeat. Every other comment is delivered with a bit of humor, calling herself the “homeless granny” and the “bionic woman.”
Spencer and her daughter, Lisa Ervin, excitedly rehashed the details of the support that has poured in from the surrounding communities. People came from as far as St. Louis — about 80 miles to the south — to bring food, bottled water, and lend a hand in the post-tornado clean-up. Perryville’s thrift store offered families clothing and furniture, and a local laundromat let survivors wash their clothes for free.
“They had all the things you wouldn’t even realize you would need. They thought of everything,” Ervin said.
Like roughly 90 percent of the homes impacted by the tornado in Perryville, Spencer’s was insured. She plans to use the insurance money she collects from the damage to put a down payment on a house her daughter hopes to buy in nearby Jackson.
“At first I didn’t want her to do that,” Ervin said. “And she’s like, ‘but Lisa you don’t understand, you’re homeless too.’ I guess it was hard for me to accept the help, you know? It was just hard to realize okay, I can’t do this on my own.”
As for Spencer, she’s still deciding her next move. A close friend and neighbor has offered to buy her property — as is — before the end of the summer. For now, she’s living in Chicago with one of her sons.
“Might as well sell it. Without Rich, I don’t want to rebuild,” Spencer said, referring to her husband, who died in last September.
“I’m really asking for God’s guidance. Do I stay here? Do I go to Chicago? After this many years, you kind of want your own, but at my age, it’s hard when all of sudden your life takes a right turn.”
There is a large topographical map of Perryville, the length of two large conference room tables, in the Perry County Health Department building. Centered across its length snake two parallel lines of tape, featuring clusters of colorful stickers.
The tape shows the tornado’s path, and the stickers represent heavily damaged areas where more than 6,000 volunteers were dispatched in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
“This is crazy. This is how insane this tornado was,” Hank Voelker said as he surveyed the table — and the expanse of a disaster he is still managing.
Born and raised in Perry County, Voelker has been the region’s Emergency Management director for three years. Having grown up, attended school, and lived alongside Perryville residents his whole life, mutual trust has come easily between Voelker and the people he serves.
“This was a classmate of mine that I grew up with, a really good friend, her house was the first one affected,” Voelker said pointing to the top edge of the map and tracing his finger to the end. “Look at the path — the last house right here. That’s her brother’s house.”
Until this February’s tornado, Voelker said he’d never seen a serious disaster while serving as Emergency Management director. He already had his hands full with that tornado recovery when state-of-emergency level flooding hit Perryville in April.
“You have to be organized,” Voelker said, talking about the chaos in the hours that follow any natural disaster. “You have to take a lot of notes to remember who you just talked to because 30 people from now you’re gonna [ask yourself] ‘who did I just talk to? It can get confusing.”
Voelker felt prepared for the tornado, and even the flooding that followed, thanks to a Homeland Security mass care training he attended over a year ago.
“When an event like this with a tornado happens, there’s going to be an enormous amount of donations.” Voelker explained.
Voelker was the one responsible for getting those donations to the survivors. He created what he calls the “mini Walmart,” a storefront in downtown Perryville with aisles stocked and organized with food, clothing, building materials and household donations. Residents only need to show their Red Cross survivor number at the counter and they can pick up as much as they need for free. Sue Spencer and Lisa Ervin have used the storefront for everything from laundry supplies to trash bags.
Even juggling two disasters, Voelker said the region is recovering swiftly.
“Other emergency managers I’ve talked to have said it usually takes more time to get to where we’re at [with recovery],” Voelker said. “I think our response has been a little quicker because of the support we've gotten from all ends of the county — that’s just how our community is.”
Perry County didn’t qualify for federal emergency funding after the tornado for two main reasons; the total cost of the damage didn’t meet FEMA’s thresholds, and so many of the impacted homes were insured.
“We don't have a lot of un-insured, we have a lot of under-insured. Folks are finding out they didn’t get as much from their insurance companies as they thought they were gonna get, so there's that financial gap.”
In the absence of federal assistance for the tornado, Voelker said the state has also stepped up to the task. Gov. Eric Greitens was on the scene less than 24 hours after the tornado, offering Perry County “literally any state asset,” including use of Highway Patrol and search and rescue team out of St. Louis.
“It’s really hard to put into words how much they’ve helped,” Voekler said.
He kept rubbing his eyes. He explained that he’d worked past 10:30 the night before, moving donations from one warehouse to another because of some storage confusion between organizers.
“When will we be done? Oh, I don’t know. Until we’re done talking with people,” Voelker said, yawning. “I’ll be here until … I don’t even know what the end will be. A year from now, come see me, and see if I’m doing the same thing — I probably will be.”
Everyone has a story about the tornado, and Jennifer Streiler has heard them all. A miraculous cross that appeared out of broken power lines. Pets reunited with their owners weeks after being swept away in the storm. Neighbors who didn’t make it to their basement, but survived the tornado without a scratch.
Listening is a big part of her job as the disaster case manager for survivors of the Feb. 28 tornado. And, it involves a lot of phone calls, scheduling appointments, connecting families with local resources, and distributing funds, too. “I’ve learned a lot about hurricane trusses, plywood decking, and dumpsters,” she said, jokingly.
Steiler took her position a few weeks after the tornado hit. As a retired public school administrator, she was well suited for the task.
“I do the homework for one person, then I have it ready for the next person. It’s a lot like being a principal. You’ve maybe never seen this problem, but you solve it, and chances are you’re going to see it again. In this type of situation there aren’t a lot of unique problems. Everybody’s got the same ones.”
Streiler said in the first days and weeks after the tornado, the common problems included finding tangible things like food, water and shelter. Now, the people she’s working with are looking for contractors, finding construction companies, meeting with insurance agents, and patching gaps in funding.
The survivors are facing more than rebuilding physical structures.
“The trauma of having gone through that night is not something that people have gotten over yet,” Streiler said. “Initially the exhaustion level was unbelievable because it happened about bed time, so no one slept that night. Then the next day you’re picking up your belongings from everywhere on earth, you can’t stay at your property — so a lot of days of very little sleep, and exhaustion.”
Months later, she’s still hearing that clients are fighting extreme fatigue.
“Even though the recovery process has started,” Streiler continued,“you're waking up at 3 in the morning wondering, ‘why hasn't the insurance agent called me?’ or ‘Holy smoke, I forgot to call him!’’ Just a million things that are keeping people awake.”
For many people in Perry County, faith is a key factor in getting through the trauma. Steiler says more than half the people she’s spoken with told her they “knew God was protecting them” or were able to pull through by following their religion. Perryville is home to a little more than 8,000 residents and 17 churches.
“I had someone who told me, ‘Do you know how long it takes for a tornado to blow over? One Hail Mary and a half an Our Father.’” Streiler said. “I think that faith in God got a lot of them through this very traumatic event.”
Initially, her case load was about 100 tornado survivors. Three months out, she’s still working closely on roughly 25 cases. She expects those families will need her continued support for the next year or so. When asked how will she know when her work is finished, she cradled her chin in her hand and thought for a moment.
“When the last family gives me the thumbs up. When they say we’re finished, that everything is taken care of,” Steiler said. “ I jokingly said I’d love to work myself out of a job by Dec. 31st. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
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