PEKIN — Amidst falling snow and a wintery breeze, brightly colored dots filled the sky around Pekin on Saturday.
Residents of the small town had released balloons in remembrance of the deadly tornadoes that savaged the area only one year ago. Among the purple floating orbs, five white balloons drifted toward the heavens, a tribute to a young family on that tragic day.
Few members of the media attended the event to commemorate the anniversary of the EF-4 tornado that struck this rural town. But to the people of Pekin, the amount of coverage they received didn’t matter. In the days and hours after the storms, the community gathered to support one another and get the job done.
Saturday was no different. But this time, everyone came together to remind those still in need they have not been forgotten and, as always, that they are never alone.
Bundled under a warm jacket, Melissa Burton was one of many who could be seen putting the finishing touches on the event. As a 911 dispatcher with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, she knows a thing or two about organization.
Burton oversaw the relief center that was formed in the gym of the local Methodist Church soon after the disaster. Following the anniversary speeches and balloon release, participants gathered in this same building for some cake, coffee and fellowship.
“This today for me was about just reassuring this community that they have not been forgotten. While it was a tragic and devastating event … this community pulled together, overcame,” Burton said. “The people in this community didn’t care that the Indianapolis Colts … or the Louisville Cardinals weren’t in their front yard to pick up debris [as in other storm-damaged areas]. Their neighbors were, and that’s what this town is about.”
Hardly recognizable under her warm hood, Original Pop-A-Top owner Theresa McCarty continued to help the community rebuild and remember, even under frigid conditions. In the weeks that followed the tornado, she shut down her tavern and fed countless workers and families, all at no cost to them. Hundreds of peeled potatoes and 50 pounds of donated meatloaf later, the bar still serves as a place for locals to reunite and discuss the aftermath of the storms.