PEKIN — On the front porch of her home by Jordan Lake in Pekin, Donna Kaelin has always had a ritual. In the mornings, she and her partner Will Callahan would grab cups of coffee, sit outside and take in the world.
But last summer, things were different. Not as many yellow finches or hummingbirds flew through her yard. More importantly, her companion of 10 years had a hard time joining her on the veranda to watch the birds that did visit. He was still healing from the injuries he sustained in the deadly March 2, 2012, tornadoes that tore through their quiet town.
Due to Callahan’s brave act that day, Kaelin had survived the destruction to her daughter’s Daisy Hill home where she had taken refuge. Using his own body as a shield, Callahan covered Kaelin, her daughter and grandchildren, and neighbor Marilyn Jackson and effectively blocked the flying debris from hitting them.
“I don’t consider myself a hero. It’s just something you don’t think about doing until something happens like this,” Callahan said.
He, though, wasn’t quite so lucky. Cinder blocks from an old flue fell on him during the EF-4 tornado, crushing his leg. Initially, doctors wanted to amputate it, but he asked them to give it one last shot. They did and his leg was spared. More than 10 surgeries later, he’s recently been able to get around with only the use of a cane.
“It tickles him that he’s advanced that much. He’s looking forward to the warm weather,” she said.
In February, the couple journeyed back to her daughter’s damaged house. Her daughter has since moved off the hill and has placed the property up for sale. She said the emotions of that day returned upon seeing the remnants of the home.
“That was only the second time I’d been up on Daisy Hill since the tornadoes,” Kaelin said. “I started crying because it made me so nervous. My stomach started churning. It just brings back the memories of seeing Will, and my grandkids carrying him across the road and that leg dangling like it was going to fall off. It was horrible.”
In the background, hammers pound away working to repair Kaelin’s house by the lake. It, too, was damaged in the storms. Days are busy for the both of them. Doctors appointments and physical therapy sessions fill their time. They appreciate all that the staff at University Hospital in Louisville has done for them. And even though they don’t know the names of the EMT driver and staff who rescued Callahan, they hope someone relays their thanks to the men.
“I’ve worked all my life and I’m still fighting for survival. It doesn’t seem fair,” Kaelin said. “But I will make it. I will make it.”
While some have decided not to return to Daisy Hill, others are eagerly awaiting the completion of a new home. Jackson, the 74-year-old who was in the house with Kaelin when the tornadoes hit, also lost her house to the storms.
With no homeowners insurance and little money available to rebuild, she applied to March2Recovery for assistance. The organization agreed to finance the construction of a new home.
“It took almost six months or longer of paperwork and being turned down. And a lot of people gave up. But with her, she just kept trying and trying,” her daughter-in-law and fellow Daisy Hill resident Dee Jackson said. “March2Recovery finally looked at her and said, ‘You need a home.’ She wants to live on her own. She’s like a kid in a candy store when they tell her she gets to choose something.”
Like others in the community, Dee and her family continue to have anxiety when serious storms approach. She’s prepared a tornado bag for the children that includes a flashlight. The kids have even gone to bed with their shoes on in case they need to run for cover in the middle of a storm night. And when bad weather is imminent, it’s not unusual for the neighbors to phone each other to warn of the risk.
“Everybody up here is a family. No matter what, we’re going to be a family. This almost took us down, but it didn’t,” Dee Jackson said. “If it ever happened again, anyone around here would do it again. That’s what came out of it for me, that I realized how many people were in the community that were actually generous and caring people that don’t ask for a whole lot.”
More than anything, Dee Jackson said she misses the old houses her husband and his family grew up in that were destroyed. She wanted her kids to see and really know their family history. The newly built houses just aren’t the same in that respect.
She added that much can be learned from the devastation caused by the March 2, 2012, storms, especially regarding the virtues of patience and perseverance. Also, after seeing the carnage, other communities might take severe weather warnings a bit more seriously.
“It’s a wake-up call that this can happen anywhere,” she said. “I think communities even outside of our communities had seen what we went through. It’s a wake-up call for them. This can happen.”