The Daily Register - Harrisburg, IL
  • One year after tornado, Harrisburg, Ridgway mayors look to the future

  • Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg and Ridgway Mayor Becky Mitchell have had a tough year, but are bolstered by the recovery their communities have experienced since the Feb. 29, 2012, tornado.
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  • Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg praises those around him.
    Since the Feb. 29, 2012, tornado his mission has been to move the city forward.
    "I have a rule: try to keep going forward. Whether it is daily business or reconstruction following the storm, we move forward," he said.
    In reconstructing the events of the year since the the early morning storm Gregg gives most of the credit to others.
    He praises Illinois Department of Transportation, Ameren, city officials, state officials, county officials and, of course, the citizens of Harrisburg. He praises first responders, police and sheriff's deputies.
    "Ameren was a huge help to the city," he said. "IDOT moved tens of thousands of tons of debris from the city. Our local churches, our businesses, our individual citizens — all were wonderful.
    "We can't say how much we appreciated them.
    "We have made a huge comeback," he said.
    Gregg believes that the media attention has shown the true nature of the community to the world.
    "We have faith, a strong work ethic and we are really resilient," he said. "We are good people, we care about others. The catastrophic event of the tornado shined the light on us and all of Southern Illinois."
    Though he has the ability to see positives in a mostly negative situation, Gregg said, "There is not a day goes by that I don't think of the ones we lost."
    Following the storm Gregg became the face of the storm to broadcast and print media across the country. That role has its own demands.
    "If it wasn't for my wife and family being behind me, I couldn't accomplish what I did,” he said.
    Twenty days after the storm Gregg was hospitalized and underwent two surgeries for an intestinal problem.
    "If it wasn't for the prayers offered for me I don't think I would be here today," he said.
    His optimism is contagious. "The city will grow and we will accomplish many great things in the days ahead. We will set the example for all of Southern Illinois.
    "Even with the storm and the flood, this city continues to run. The city council was with me every step of the way following the storm."
    Gregg sees storm recovery as his personal mission as mayor.
    The day before the storm he was having an attack of self-doubt. Too much bickering in the community led to his crisis of faith. He doubted he ever should have run for office.
    "I was second-guessing myself. I got my answer the next morning at 4:56 a.m.,” he said.
    Looking to the future Gregg wants to:
    • Provide jobs
    • Help business grow
    • Encourage families to move back to the city
    • Help make permanent the positive can-do attitude of the people following the storm
    • Continue to set goals and accomplish them
    Page 2 of 3 - "We want to make Harrisburg a destination point in southeastern Illinois. Our traffic count is amazing. A lot of cars travel state Route 13 and U.S. Route 45. We want them to be able to stop, eat, go to a movie and find entertainment."
    Ridgway Mayor Becky Mitchell is grateful that the Feb. 29 tornado caused no deaths in her town.
    "Homes and buildings can be replaced, but not people," she said.
    The self-proclaimed "Popcorn Capital of the World" was spared much of the devastation visited on Harrisburg. It sits 18 miles northeast of Harrisburg. There was a significant amount of damage. A trailer was overturned sending its occupants to the hospital. Eight homes needed to be rebuilt.
    St. Joseph Catholic Church — now renamed St. Kateri Catholic Church — was totally destroyed. Slate from its roof was found all over town, some shards were embedded in walls of standing buildings.
    The town limped through the following months, neighbors helping neighbors and the federal government providing the lion’s share of the capital needed to rebuild.
    "We only lost two families to relocation," said Mitchell. Everyone else repaired or rebuilt. "To the best of my knowledge we have helped every displaced family repair or rebuild since the storm.”
    Though the tornado that damaged parts of Williamson, Saline and Gallatin was not severe enough to warrant a Federal Disaster declaration, federal aid came anyway in the form of grant money.
    "We have been very blessed. The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has helped the uninsured and the underinsured,” Mitchell said.
    The DCEO is a state agency that funneled the federal grant.
    Wabash Area Development Inc., a private not for profit charity, also helped greatly, rebuilding five homes, she said.
    "We were fine, even though the fed did not declare us a disaster area they helped us greatly," she said.
    The VFW post was devastated. A wall bearing a painting of the American flag came down. Over the summer it was rebuilt and repainted. It stands as a symbol of the American spirit so evident in the town.
    Mitchell thinks the lesson to be learned from the tornado is to be prepared. Have a weather radio, have a plan in place.
    "It struck so fast, I didn't have time to be afraid," she said.
    "You need to be aware of what you want to take with you if a disaster strikes. I think everyone will heed watches and warnings in the future."
    As an example she cited the Popcorn Festival. Popcorn Day is the second Saturday of Sept. and on Friday the town was packed with festival patrons. A severe storm watch was issued and went to a warning. Everyone got inside while at 7 p.m. the straight winds did their thing. Vendors lost canopies, but no one was hurt.
    Page 3 of 3 - "Southern Illinois is one of kind when it comes to volunteer help. Shortly after the tornado there were volunteer farmers in town with their heavy equipment helping to clear the streets. Ameren was great. Some residents had power by the evening of Feb. 29,” Mitchell said.
    The Gallatin County Tin Shop, an agricultural and hardware supply store, had eight buildings damaged and lost half of its main building. The store is still in the process of rebuilding and will have a grand opening in late March or early April, Mitchell said.
    The Popcorn Factory was rebuilt and continues to do business in a diminished capacity from earlier days.
    Mitchell plans to help the poor purchase weather radios with any funds left over after reconstruction is complete.
    Looking to the future, Mitchell said, "I just want someone to locate a supermarket in our county."
    n Follow Kane at twitter.com/tkane_DR
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