On Wednesday, February 29 at 4:56 a.m., the City of Harrisburg was struck by a deadly tornado.
While much of Johnson County was unaware of the severe destruction to its northeast early that morning, area emergency and law enforcement personnel were already responding.
In the hours and days that followed, Johnson County residents would respond as well, organizing and collecting much-needed items to help their neighbors start the process of cleaning and rebuilding what the storm had destroyed.
The tornado would soon earn an EF-4 rating, with scientists reporting its width at 200 yards and winds up to 170 mph. Lt. Tracy L. Felty of the Saline County Sheriffs Office would soon confirm the tornado killed six people, injured an estimated100 others and damaged or destroyed between 250 to 300 houses as well as an estimated 25 businesses.
Later in the same day, Gov. Pat Quinn toured the destruction and issued a state disaster declaration for Southern Illinois. Quinn held a press conference in Harrisburg saying the state could help with the rebuilding process, but first it was time to help the injured.
Johnson County itself did not see much, if any, damage from the tornado with some residents reporting it took a neighbors phone call to even make them aware the tornado passed by.
I was sound asleep and was still unsure of what had happened even after I was awake, said Barry Eastman of Eastman Orchards on State Route 37 North. Eastmans property suffered damage to its roof with a hole the size of a van torn through it. Eastman was pleased the damage was not more severe saying he would just tear that part of the structure down, which he has. Further north on 37, a power line was destroyed and parts of a nearby barn had much of its siding torn away. Lake of Egypt area also reported power lines and trees down, but for most of Johnson County there were no reports of severe damage leaving the community available to put their good will to work.
I kept getting calls about what I was going to do for the tornado victims, said Johnson County Red Cross Coordinator Robin Harper-Whitehead, who has a reputation for organizing and participating in temporary and ongoing relief efforts for others in need. By the end of Wednesday she and Judy Hayden, of Hayden Furniture, had teamed up to start a collection of needed goods and would use a Haydens delivery truck to take the items to both Saline and Gallatin County.
We knew that we needed to do it quick, said Harper-Whitehead, saying that she posted a request to Facebook for people to pitch in and the word spread throughout Johnson County with an overwhelming result.
The items started pouring in, said Harper-Whitehead. We collected non-perishable food, hygiene items, cleaning supplies, pillows, blankets, toilet paper, paper towels, paper goods such as plates, cups, forks, spoons and toys and clothes.
Harper-Whitehead was not alone in pushing the timeliness factor as Lake of Egypt Association of Property Owners (LEAPO) Food Drive chairperson Cindi Swinehart quickly turned the annual Spring LEAPO Food Drive into a collection of goods for the Harrisburg disaster relief efforts.
I felt under the circumstances this was something we should be involved in, said Swinehart. We quickly established drop-off points at the Dollar Store, SouthernTrust Bank in Goreville and Lake of Egypt, Regions Bank, the Lake Egypt Fire Department and Lumberts Marina as well as our own home for people in the Robin Woods area.
Both efforts outperformed the expectations of their organizers. Harper-Whitehead said Johnson County turned up and donated more than the delivery truck could handle, requiring the addition of a furniture trailer and two county blazers on loan from the sheriffs department and packed full. More than 1,400 items were collected in addition to bags and bags of stuff from students in Goreville who put together care baskets, said Harper-Whitehead.
Swinehart said LEAPO collected and delivered more than 400 items to the United Way of Southern Illinois operating out of the Rural King parking lot in Marion.
United Way is only collecting until Friday, said Swinehart, But LEAPO will continue to collect through the drop off bins until the end of March and deliver the items to Harrisburg ourselves.
By Monday the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had arrived in Harrisburg and began conducting preliminary damage assessment walk thrus, the Saline County Sheriffs Office reported. The assessment will be used to support the states request for federal assistance, the Southern Illinoisan reported early Tuesday morning.
The Southern went on to report FEMA spokeswoman Hannah Vick as saying the teams will be looking at the effect of this event on the whole community and what its going to take for the communities to get back on their feet.
As Johnson County continues to respond, the devastation of its neighbors community has brought out the best in people who are eager to help, but the reality of the destruction will be felt for some time after the media attention wanes.
When we entered Harrisburg and saw the businesses [destroyed], I was sick, said Harper-Whitehead of the groups trip to deliver the collected goods Sunday. But when we saw the homes [destroyed] I was sick to my stomach. I cant imagine what they went thru in the moments the storm began and I cant imagine not knowing where my baby was only to find her blocks away. It was very sad.
For those wishing to still donate, the Harrisburg First Baptist Church is working with the Red Cross in organizing donations coming into the city and listed the following items as still needed: wash cloths, bath towels, flashlights, Kleenex, disinfecting wipes, mops, brooms and dust pans. Empty boxes and totes are also in demand.
The Saline County Sheriffs Office reported that further donations should be financial or possibly cleaning supplies, including rakes and shovels. Financial donations should be marked Tornado Relief and may be made to:
Salvation Army / 10 W. Poplar Street / Harrisburg, IL 62946 618-253-4421.
4Cs / 632 N. Jackson Street / Harrisburg, IL 62946 618-252-3931.
Legence Bank / 502 N. Commercial Street / Harrisburg, IL 62946 618-253-5555.
Harvest Delivery Center / 38 S. Vine Street / Harrisburg, IL 62946 618-841-4374.