PEKIN — Thirty days. That’s all it took for Rick Lanham to get his Pekin lumberyard up and sawing again after the March 2, 2012, tornadoes almost demolished it.
Within 40 days, Worley Lumber Co. was back at full production — not a small feat. And Lanham accomplished this without having to lay off a single one of his 15 workers.
“We kept them cleaning up, and I believe everybody worked straight through,” he said.
Around the town, signs of the disaster are still apparent. It’s not unusual to see a piece of metal still stuck in a tree. Cleanup hasn’t entirely finished, even after a year.
“There are still families up through here having a rough time. Things haven’t worked out for them completely. People are adjusting,” Lanham said.
Down the road from the saw mill is the place where all five members of the Babcock family perished in the EF-4 twister. Only a wooden cross surrounded by weathered teddy bears and burned candles indicates where the mobile home once stood.
Lanham said he was trying to help the struggling family get back on their feet by providing them with this housing. The next week, he was going to add the father, Joseph Babcock, to the mill’s payroll. He remembered talking to him the day that the tornadoes struck.
“Just that Friday [March 2], he came to me that morning and said, ‘I have to leave by 11.’ His minister was picking him up and taking him to the license branch,” Lanham said. “He came back just a few minutes after 12 with a pink piece of paper and said, ‘They’ll mail me one with my picture.’ He’d never had a driver’s license. He was as proud as a peacock.”
Hours later, he would be dead.
Lanham knew the family well. Moriah Brough, the mother, was raised in the town. Her father works at the lumberyard still today. While difficult to understand, Lanham said he was consoled that the family spent their last moments with one another.
“I got comfort in, since it had to be [that] they all passed ... they stayed together and we got to bury them all together. They don’t have to worry anymore,” he said.
The injury toll to the workers at his business could have been much higher, but the employees chose to take some of their overtime hours and leave an hour earlier than normal.
“Normally we work until 3 on Fridays,” Lanham said. “But earlier in the week, we had worked about a half-hour late. The guys decided instead of overtime, they’d leave an hour early. So everyone left at 2. Even if we would have left a few minutes early, somebody would have driven into it,” he said of the tornado that struck after 3 p.m.
Within walking distance from Worley Lumber, little remains where Saroyan Hardwoods Inc. once stood. Longtime Pekin residents Sammy Anderson and Sterling McCarty said they had heard the small business would be rebuilding elsewhere, but nothing has been set in stone.
Residents still gather at the Original Pop-a-Top, a tavern in town, and discuss those March events of a year ago. McCarty and his mother own the bar and helped distribute meals and other essentials to those in need after the storms hit. He said that although much has been done, there are still areas affected.
“Most of the residents on [Jordan] Lake, they’ve pretty much kicked back and come back,” he said. “If you drive by there, there’s still a bunch of debris lying around. There’re still trees across everybody’s yards.”
He and Anderson both expressed annoyance at the government. It’s common to hear stories about victims with already little resources having to replace septic systems because their old ones weren’t up to code. This addition could add more than $3,000 to an already cash-strapped survivor’s expense.
“The only problem I had was with the government. There was just so much red tape,” Anderson said. “You had some government guy say you can’t put shingles in that fire, you can’t burn metal and all that kind of stuff. Dude, we’re worried about getting these people cleaned up enough just to get them back in their house.”
Some residents said they also couldn’t understand why their town and tragedy didn’t receive as much press attention as other areas affected. At times, they felt ignored.
“We never got the news coverage that Henryville got. I think everything poured into Henryville and not as much poured in here from the national scene. Locally, all the churches pitched in and the community,” Anderson said. “As far as nationally, everything seemed to go to Henryville.”
March2Recovery has begun to aid those neighbors in need. Executive Director Carolyn King said that Washington County Community Foundation alone has already donated $150,000 in assistance to the organization that is then passed along to those with hardships.
Anderson, whose sister lost her house on Daisy Hill, said he didn’t understand why the aid distribution had been so slow. King answered that grants took a while, sometimes longer than expected, to come through.
She apologized for the wait, but also explained the reason behind the delay. The request for the money needed to be fully vetted and that takes time, she said. They strive to ensure the people applying truly are in need and have pursued every other option available.
“I’m sorry that it was as slow coming as it was because I know it was frustrating people. We’re finding people are being very patient now that they know. I think it’s the unknown that makes people feel anxious,” King said. “Hopefully they’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel right now.”
When asked what others could do to help the small town continue to recover, Lanham had only one suggestion.
“Keep us in your prayers,” he said.