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Tornado recovery begins in tough, tiny Ill. city

By Jim Suhr

Associated Press

Published: Friday, March 2 2012 5:20 p.m. MST

An American flag flies from what is left of the tree in front of a destroyed senior center Friday, March 2, 2012, in Harrisburg, Ill. A pre-dawn twister flattened entire blocks of homes Wednesday as violent storms ravaged the Midwest and South.

Seth Perlman, Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Ill. — Even as sirens warned of new tornado sightings in the area, the community of coal miners and flood survivors tried to push ahead with recovery Friday from an unfamiliar kind of disaster — a twister that killed six and leveled blocks of buildings.

Among those out contributing was Paige Schutt, who was selling "This Too Shall Pass: Harrisburg, Ill. Feb. 29, 2011" T-shirts like hotcakes for $10 from the back of a pickup truck, with proceeds bound for the county sheriff to dole out to tornado victims as he sees fit.

Touched by the outpouring of support she once received after a motorcycle wreck put her into a six-month coma, the owner of a screen-printing business said she was paying it forward in her community, where the deadly tornado marked just the latest blow to a place flooding once nearly wiped off the map.

"You get what you give," said the 22-year-old former Harrisburg High School valedictorian. "When I had my accident, almost everyone gave money to help pay for my care. I never forgot that."

Locals said the gesture provided a snapshot of how the 9,000-resident, 123-year-old, coal-mining city will dig deep and rebound from Wednesday's pre-dawn twister.

"Everybody is trying to find something to help," said Katie Gaskins, a 62-year-old grandmother and lifelong Harrisburg resident who sported one of the T-shirts. "Everyone is going through grieving. Everyone wants to scream and cry. There's denial, and everyone's in shock. But this is not going to kill Harrisburg. It'll take months and years, but Harrisburg always comes back."

On the eve of the first of the tornado victims' funerals — traditionally an emotional marker for communities ravaged by disaster — Harrisburg's storm sirens wailed as more severe weather drifted across the region. No new twister came, but the warnings delayed cleanup efforts and sent nervous locals scrambling for cover.

"I'm just scared it's going to hit someone else," said Sheri Barnett, 31, after nervously emerging from a Ponderosa Steakhouse where her family had joined a couple of dozen other patrons seeking shelter in a narrow, concrete-protected part of the restaurant.

Storms in multiple states later Friday left several people dead, others injured and two Indiana towns wrecked.

But in Harrisburg, the sun emerged, buoying hopes for better times in a city that struggled with flooding as far back as the early 1880s.

Harrisburg took its biggest hit in 1937, when the Ohio River and the nearby Saline River flooded much of the region, leaving several thousand of locals homeless and four-fifths of Harrisburg water-logged. At a time when the city had one of southern Illinois' biggest downtown districts, it "was nearly wiped off the map," according to its current website.

Coal mines, the lifeblood of the local economy, were left flooded with billions of gallons of water. Some were condemned.

The city got a levee, rebuilt and moved on. But more floodwaters rolled in in 2008, causing some $20 million in damage and affecting more than 70 businesses. According to the city's web site, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied flood recovery grants and loans to Illinois.

Then came more inundation last year, only to be followed by this week's twister that turned blocks of homes into splinters of wood and twisted metal. The dead included a nurse who taught Sunday school, a hatmaker who worked part-time at the local Hallmark store, and a U.S. Forest Service worker.

When it comes to hits Harrisburg has taken over the years, Gaskins said "this would be at the top of the list."

"This is something new for the loss of life," said Gaskins, who went to high school with one of the victims. "These people who died were not faceless people. Everybody knows everybody here, and everybody helps everybody."

Harrisburg boasted 16,000 residents in its heyday but has seen that population cut by nearly half since the 1930s. Gaskins says those who remain have a sense of family evidenced by their willingness, in some cases, to drive 40 miles to work elsewhere, while still calling Harrisburg home.

Mayor Eric Gregg calls it commitment.

"We can deal with floods. We can deal with lots of things. But dealing with a tornado like this is heartbreaking," he said, before waving a figurative fist at the twister's aftermath. "We will rebuild. This will make our city stronger. This will not stop us."

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