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Harrisburg is grateful to thousands who helped city rebuild after Leap Day tornado

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2013 - After a killer tornado tore through Harrisburg, Ill., on Leap Day 2012, residents found that it not only takes a village to rebuild a community, it also takes a little help from their friends.

And, in this case, those friends were volunteers -- about 6,000 of them -- who traveled from near and far to help pick up the pieces of the shattered lives of people they didn’t know in a little city that most had never heard of deep in southern Illinois.

"It’s been nothing short of amazing, and it speaks volumes about not only people in Harrisburg and southern Illinois but people across this great country. We’ve had people from just about every state that poured in here,’’ said Mayor Eric Gregg.

The out-of-towners and local volunteers from Harrisburg’s churches, civic groups and businesses worked together in the days and months after the tornado, providing muscle, financial support and prayer. Their efforts helped the city of 9,000 make what Gregg describes as a "tremendous comeback.”

Eight Harrisburg residents were killed by the Feb. 29 twister, which the National Weather Service classified as an EF4, its second-strongest rating. The tornado blew through town at 4:56 a.m. that Wednesday morning, leaving a 200-foot wide path of rubble. It injured more than 100 residents, destroyed 100 homes and seriously damaged 300 others; about 30 businesses were also affected. The majority of damaged homes – and an apartment complex where six fatalities occurred – have been rebuilt.

"The city is mostly back together,’’ Gregg said, though he adds that there is still plenty to do, including business development and rebuilding a commercial strip mall.

"We’ve been trying to get businesses to not only locate here but existing businesses to expand. This is really a great community. We have a wonderful school system. It’s a beautiful community located in the foothills of the Shawnee National Forest,’’ said the mayor. “I’ve raised four kids here with my wife. This is my home and I love it. I’ve seen it in the worst conditions, and I’ve seen us at our best in those conditions.’’

Gregg believes that his community, the county seat of Saline County, has a new sense of duty and responsibility.

"There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those we lost,’’ he said. "I never attend any meeting that I don’t carry the names of those we lost with me. I do that out of respect and out of remembrance of them and their families and what they’re dealing with. And to remind me that I’ve got to do and be my best whenever I’m doing anything in this city.’’

The town recently dedicated memorials to the tornado victims outside Harrisburg Medical Center. The hospital had also been damaged by the violent storm.

'We’re extremely resilient people'

The tornado was a tragedy for a community that has faced its share of challenges in recent years.

The city fought flooding -- in 2008 and 2011 -- and dealt with a major ice storm in 2009. The most recent blow was economic: Peabody Energy announced in late November that it will permanently close its Willow Lake coal mine in Saline County due to safety issues.

The mine closing will cost the area 400 good-paying jobs, which Gregg described as "absolutely devastating” for a region already economically depressed. The median household income in Harrisburg is $34,017, compared to the state average of $56,576. The unemployment rate in Saline County is 8.5 percent.

Gregg said his community is bracing for the impact of the job loss. He recently attended a rally of coal miners and thanked them for their support after the tornado.

"I told them, ‘On the morning of Feb. 29 I was on Water Street, and I watched as the mine rescue teams from this coal mine came in. You were heroes in my eyes because you were fearless. Many of you had coal dust on your faces and you came in and climbed right into the debris looking for survivors and those who were injured. I’m here for you; this city’s here for you,’ ’’ he said.

Gregg, who used to work for the state’s commerce department, said he is using that experience to push for economic development.

"One thing I know about the people of Harrisburg and southern Illinois is that we’re extremely resilient people and we have been battle-tested many, many times,’’ he said. "We will not give up, nor will we cave in and we will not make excuses. We will continue to be and do our best. We will put our best foot forward no matter what hits us from whatever angle.’’

Moving on with help of many

Tornado victim Sean Dillard is preparing to move into a donated home being remodeled for his family. He survived the storm with his wife and children by huddling together in the basement as 175-mile-an-hour winds tore through the second floor of their house. 

"It has been just overwhelming what people have done in this town to help out each other -- the churches and all of the people who came in,’’ said Dillard who was featured in a previous story in the Beacon. 

Dillard, 26, and his wife Ashley, 25, had just moved into the brick bungalow they were renting on Granger Street and were still in the process of getting settled. Their car was seriously damaged and they lost most of their possessions.

Dillard is an Army veteran who had been attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with his military benefits. The couple, along with daughter Hannah, 6, and son Dawson, 19 months, have been living with Ashley Dillard’s parents in Harrisburg since the tornado. They had been unable to qualify for a home mortgage.

Their new home is a foreclosure donated by Legence Bank to the Christian Community Compassion Center, an interdenominational group known as the 4Cs. The house has been renovated by volunteers with funds donated by a local church. Ameren paid for a new heating system, Dillard said.

The Dillards have been working with the volunteers to get their new home ready.

"They never asked us to; they never said that part of the deal is you have to come and work. We wanted to be able to say that we helped put this home together,’’ Dillard said. "It’s been real nice being able to meet them and know who they are.’’

After FEMA said no

In the weeks following the tornado, Harrisburg residents expressed anger and disappointment after the Federal Emergency Management Agency ruled that they were not eligible for emergency assistance. But Gregg says the city moved on without that assistance. 

"It was really a back-handed compliment from FEMA: that we were handling the disaster so well that they didn’t feel like we needed their assistance. We had it under control,’’ he said. "Everything works out for a reason. Through the donations we received, the hard work of our citizens and the volunteers who came to our city, we have put our city back together without FEMA coming in here. In some cases, it can be detrimental to have all the strings that can be attached.’’

The city received assistance from the state of Illinois, which designated Harrisburg and other communities in southern Illinois damaged by the tornado as eligible for up to $13 million in aid. The federal Small Business Administration also offered low-interest disaster loans to eligible homeowners, business owners and renters.

The community established a long-term recovery committee to coordinate volunteer efforts and also the spending of "pots of money’’ donated by a wide range of organizations, businesses and churches. The group is called STORM, an acronym for the services provided: social services, temporary housing, one-stop coordination of services, rehabilitation of housing and money management of funds.

Sharon Behnke-Fleege, a retired social worker who coordinated social services for STORM, said that the initial focus was on helping people with the basics: food, clothing and a place to stay.

"We started with people who hurt the worst,’’ she said.

A primary goal of STORM was to provide assistance for tornado victims who were either uninsured or underinsured --- or who didn’t qualify for loans or grants, said Behnke-Fleege. In some cases, families didn’t discover until months after the storm that their homes had suffered structural damage and needed more costly repairs than were apparent early on. Another priority was to arrange counseling for victims -- particularly children -- who were having trouble dealing with the emotional trauma.

Behnke-Fleege said that Harrisburg's residents and officials faced a learning curve as they navigated the process of applying for grants and effectively allocating resources. 

"It’s been a real eye-opener, but our organization has been remarkable and it has caught the eye of people in Springfield about how well we were able to coordinate and how well our community came together,’’ she said.


Gregg was impressed by how quickly the church community jumped into action. Within hours of the storm, local congregations were sheltering victims and cooking meals for the victims and rescue workers.

"It’s amazing to watch that network take off,’’ he said.

Gregg said that Harrisburg’s residents empathize with other communities that have suffered tragedies.

"We’ve got a lot of work to do -- as many folks do in small communities not only in southern Illinois but in the Midwest and across the country,’’ he said. "I hope and pray better days are ahead. This is not unique to Harrisburg. It’s a really difficult time for many in this country. But we do have each other, and that’s something nobody can take away.’’

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