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Harrisburg residents work to rebuild despite denial of FEMA aid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2012 - Under the cheerful blue sky of a late March morning, a handful of volunteers armed with crowbars and hammers and a sense of purpose muscled their way through a tornado-wrecked house in Harrisburg, Ill., dragging the shattered remains of what used to be someone’s home into a Dumpster.

Among the volunteers was Stephanie Heath-Roselli of Columbia, Tenn., who brought her 15-year-old daughter Kayla Knoshal and three teen-age girls from their church to help with Harrisburg's cleanup during their spring break from school. It was hard work on an unseasonably warm morning, but the girls were giving the job their all.

“Most of them have never worked like this, but they’re enjoying the work and enjoying helping other people. It’s good that young people are here to help other people and they don’t expect anything in return,’’ said Heath-Roselli, who grew up in Harrisburg and still has family living in town.

Seven Harrisburg residents were killed by the Feb. 29 twister, given the second-strongest rating by the National Weather Service. The storm blew through the town of about 9,000 and the surrounding countryside about 5 a.m. that Wednesday morning, wrecking everything in a 200-foot wide path. About 100 residents were injured in Harrisburg, the county seat of Saline County, and hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed.

Nearly one month after the Leap Day Tornado, it is still possible to trace the path of destruction through the southern part of town by following the blue tarps on damaged roofs — and the sights and sounds of rebuilding. On this Tuesday, Heath-Roselli was working with volunteers around Largent Street, where piles of debris await attention.

She noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to deny major disaster assistance to the community has been hard on homeowners who had no insurance or were underinsured and are now relying heavily on volunteers to help them clean up their property and rebuild.

“Harrisburg is my town and it’s a very caring group, and they will carry on with or without FEMA’s help, but it would be a tremendous help if FEMA would step in and help the people who did not have insurance coverage,’’ she said. “But if they don’t, the churches and the community will step in to fill the gap.’’

In its denial, FEMA indicated a belief that Harrisburg had sufficient resources for recovery available through the state and charitable organizations. In a separate declaration, the Small Business Administration announced that tornado victims of Saline, Gallatin and Williamson counties would be eligible for low-interest loans. Homeowners and renters, as well as businesses, meeting the criteria are eligible for the loans.

FEMA’s decision has been widely criticized by local and state officials, including Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois congressional delegation who pointed out that disaster recovery programs usually include grants for temporary housing and home repairs that are particularly critical for low-income residents.

Quinn on Monday announced an aid package of up to $13 million to assist Harrisburg and other southern Illinois communities in their tornado recovery. The program includes a range of assistance, including $5 million from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for public infrastructure improvements, housing rehabilitation and reconstruction; up to $2 million in business loans through the Illinois Finance Authority, and up to $1 million in loans to homeowners from the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

State officials also pledged to continue to work to find additional funding, including federal assistance, for the communities. 

Harrisburg’s community and church leaders say they have shifted their focus from dealing with the immediacy of the emergency to working together on a long-term recovery plan for their town.

“We’re proud of our church and we’re proud of our community, but we are facing difficulty as FEMA rejected our request for aid here,’’ said the Rev. Christine Cunningham, pastor of First United Methodist Church, whose congregation provided more than 30,000 meals to relief workers and victims in the weeks after the storm. “It does create a long-term problem for us and the community is trying to come together — both secular and faith-based — to address it.’’

Cunningham believes the Harrisburg community is up to the challenge ahead, though lack of federal assistance will mean that some tornado victims — particularly those already financially stressed — will be forced to rely on volunteer efforts and charity-based aid. Some people have difficulty asking for such help, she noted.

“It’s going to be a long haul and we’re facing a lot of challenges, a lot of difficulties,” Cunningham said. “And we’re also faced with the reality that there’s going to be disaster fatigue. There’s a lot of help in the beginning, but groups and individuals pull out as time goes by — and where will that leave those who started out with very little and have had that very little taken away from them?”

'It’s a bunch of politics'

Victims of the Leap Day Tornado also speak proudly of the community spirit and resilience that drive Harrisburg residents, but FEMA's denial gnaws at the edges of that conversation. Like many in town, Sean and Ashley Dillard question why Harrisburg was denied federal disaster assistance when it was granted to towns in Indiana and Kentucky that were struck by tornadoes just days later.

“We have an EF4 tornado, and FEMA says this is not a disaster area. That’s ridiculous. I think it’s a bunch of politics getting involved and clouding some judgment,’’ said Sean Dillard.

The Dillards had just moved into the brick bungalow they were renting on Granger Street. The tornado wrecked the upper floors of the house, leaving it uninhabitable. They had renters insurance, which they say will cover the loss of most of their possessions, and car insurance, which will compensate them for an estimated $10,000 in damage done to their car when the garage fell apart.

“But we need a home,’’ Dillard said.

The Dillards stood in the solid little basement of their battered house, showing where they huddled together with their kids as 175-mile-an-hour winds whipped through the two floors above them, shattering windows and blowing out a second-floor bedroom wall.

“It was the most horrible thing we’ve ever been through. All I could do was worry about my kids and hang onto them and just wait for it to be over with,’’ said Ashley Dillard, 25, who held onto 5-year-old Hannah, while her husband shielded 11-month-old Dawson with pillows.

Sean Dillard, 26, recalls his fear at one point that he might be suffocating his baby boy under the weight of his body.

“I uncovered his head and he was sitting there smiling and laughing as debris was flying everywhere,” Dillard said. “It made me feel like everything was going to be OK.”

Although everyday living has been hard in the weeks since the storm, the Dillards say that nothing — absolutely nothing — compares to those moments in the dark, musty cellar amid swirling shingles and debris after the wind blew open the back door at the top of the basement stairs.

“We didn’t have a scratch,” said Ashley Dillard, shaking her head, her voice still full of disbelief.

The couple would like to buy a mobile home for land they already own, but they are having difficulty coming up with the down payment. They had hoped to qualify for a federal emergency disaster grant to help with their housing needs.

The Dillards have moved in with Ashley’s parents, as they search for a new place to live. Sean Dillard, an Army and Illinois National Guard veteran, who served a tour of duty in Iraq, is using the G.I. Bill to study photography at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He also has his own photography business and a job delivering newspapers. Between school and his jobs, he estimates that he works 60 to 70 hours a week.

“Whatever way I need to take care of my family, I will do it,” he said.

Figuring out next step

At the old Mad Pricer discount store — now the site of the Harrisburg Relief Distribution Center — dozens of volunteers still work to open and sort through boxes of donated items that have arrived in town by the truckload since the tornado. In the aftermath of the storm, the churches of the Harrisburg Ministerial Alliance joined with city and county officials to organize relief efforts — and to house and feed hundreds of volunteers who descended upon the town.

The relief center has a wealth of clothing, paper towels and bottled water, noted the Rev. Roger Lipe, pastor of McKinley Avenue Baptist Church, who was directing the volunteers. Lipe estimated that the old store is stocked with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donated items — from cleaning supplies and canned goods to a mountain of stuffed animals and toys.

“This will be an ongoing thing for some time,” Lipe said, noting that some residents are already repairing their homes and will be back in them within a month or two, while others are still living with relatives or in temporary housing. They will need many of these items to help them get back on their feet.

Lipe said he is frustrated by FEMA’s decision, though he told his congregation that it also presents a spiritual opportunity for the community to pull together.

“If the government steps in and they can pay the bill and they can fix everything than it’s the government that gets the glory for it. But FEMA has said, ‘No. We’re not going to help.’ Our churches are banding together and I’ve never seen anything like what I’ve seen here with the volunteers and the spirit of the churches and the unity of the churches,” Lipe said. “When this is all done and when the homes are rebuilt. When they’re repaired and families are moving back in, we won’t praise our government we’ll be able to praise our Lord — our God. Because he did this and he did it through people who were willing to give.”

Sean Dillard says he is amazed and grateful for the outpouring of support from strangers — from the volunteers to the SIUE students who just showed up to help in the hours after the tornado — and also for the donations of food and building and cleaning supplies that have poured into town.

“We would like to thank everybody who helped us out. This has been a hard time for everyone,’’ Dillard said.

But he isn’t letting the federal government off the hook.

“I think FEMA should have been helping out, and it’s a sad thing that they can ignore us and help everyone else out,’’ he said. “I think this should be an eye-opener to everybody. Bad things can happen but staying together as a community is most important and that’s how we’re going to be able to rebuild and move forward.’’

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.