One year later Leap Day tornado remembered

A year after a tornado destroyed parts of his town, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg still carries a list of the names of eight people who were killed by the storm.

“I don’t ever forget them, and I will never forget them,” he said.

A 200-yard-wide tornado with winds up to 170 mph ripped through the sleeping town at 4:56 a.m. Feb. 29, 2012.

Community members gather Wednesday at Southeastern Illinois College for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of the victims of the leap day tornado. “It was a very special event, “ Harrisburg mayor Eric Gregg said. “This was definitely a step in the healing process and a huge blessing.” Lynnette Oostmeyer-The Weekender

Community members gather Wednesday at Southeastern Illinois College for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of the victims of the leap day tornado. “It was a very special event, “ Harrisburg mayor Eric Gregg said. “This was definitely a step in the healing process and a huge blessing.” Lynnette Oostmeyer-The Weekender

Jaylynn Ferrell, 22; Greg Swierk, 50; Linda Hull, 74; Mary Osman, 75; Randy Rann, 64; and Donna Rann, 61, were killed when the EF4 tornado destroyed their Brady Street duplexes. Don Smith, 70, died March 7 at Deaconess Hospital. R. Blaine Mauney, died May 31.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency found while proposing for federal assistance that the tornado damaged 440 homes. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity found that at least 74 Harrisburg businesses and at least 54 in the neighboring town of Ridgway were damaged.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials denied any federal assistance to the city twice after determining assistance from state, area agency and volunteer assistance would be enough to rebuild.

Gregg said about 90 percent of the damaged areas have been rebuilt except for the Highway 45 strip mall, which was leveled.

“We were literally roofing houses the next day,” he said. “People here really refuse to be beat or go down.”

Gregg said that day changed the town as well as residents’ lives.

Stacy Cottom, who lived in a Brady street duplex with her husband Doug, said the day was the worst of her life. Cottom said she and her husband were lifted into the air when the storm hit and landed 100 to 150 feet from their home. She said her husband had a broken back, a fractured pelvis and cuts everywhere. He was in the Evansville Hospital trauma unit for five days and a rehab facility for almost two weeks.

Cottom said she didn’t go back home for a few days but soon returned to work at Ross Cottom Lanes, the bowling alley they own. After living with family and friends for months, the couple moved back to their rebuilt home in August.

“I wanted to go back to the exact duplex we were in before because I didn’t want this tornado, for lack of better words, chasing me around my whole life,” she said. “It’s kind of like the mind over matter thing. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, you’re not going to get me down.’”

Living in the same area where six of their neighbors died has been difficult for the couple.

“You think about those people and then you feel bad because you wonder, ‘Why am I alive? It just doesn’t make sense,’” she said. “But I’m here, that’s wonderful. I’m just living life.”

Cottom said family and friends helped find their belongings in the wreckage.

Lynnette Oostmeyer-The Weekender

Lynnette Oostmeyer-The Weekender

Sherry Hinant, an assistant librarian and genealogist at the Harrisburg District Library, helped organize photographs found after the storm. The pictures were spread out on library basement tables for residents to find.

Hinant said she wanted to help because the pictures meant more than anyone would think. She has been through a house fire and knows what it is like to lose almost everything, she said.

“I know how devastating it can be,” she said. “And just to find the simplest little thing means so much to have it. So I knew how important these pictures were to people.”

Hinant said to a certain extent the community support has lasted past the first few days.

Dave Dennison, co-owner of Morello’s Pizza and Catering in Harrisburg, said while the city was in disbelief of what happened, people poured their hearts into helping neighbors.

Dennison and several restaurant owners provided food for those displaced and people who came to help.

Family members of victims were worried about community support not lasting, Gregg said.

“People were running to help, not running away from it,” he said. “That is something that has carried us from that day to now. We still have people coming to help.”

Gregg said there were at least 6,000 volunteers that came from outside the city to help.

Cottom said the community support was unbelievable.

“When you think of Joplin, Mo., it was the whole town. You wonder, is the hospital still up there? Is this all of Harrisburg? Is anyone even going to come?” she said. “People came from all over, from everywhere, from out of state.”

For many Harrisburg residents and those who lost loved ones, the storm is not something they will forget and helped them appreciate a smaller community.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Cottom said. “I mean, if that was going to happen again, I’d want to live here.”

Tara Kulash contributed to this story.

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