By AMANDA BEAM
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.
“When you know you have to do something, you do it. It all came together and just fell in place,” she said.
Speeches delivered on the weathered stage in Pekin Park echoed McCarty’s sentiment. Cold weather postponed the tree-planting ceremony originally planned, but a poem was read in its place. Titled “The Mighty Oak”, the words mimicked the town’s own plight this past year: “When the winds are high and restless and you lose a limb or two, it only makes you stronger, we could learn so much from you.”
Pekin resident David Sowder also spoke about how the “small town with a big heart” came together after the brutal storms. He remembered Joe Babcock, Moriah Brough and their three young children who perished as a result of the tornado. But he also acknowledged how much the town had helped the struggling family even before the world knew of their names.
“This young family was fortunate enough to have neighbors, friends and a church that were able to keep them up off the ground. A community that was unwilling to let a young family slip through the cracks. But sadly, the only reason we know this story is because this young family was lost on March 2,” Sowder said. “The loss of this young family adds to the magnitude of the tragedy, but their story is a prime example of a community that cares for one another. “
Standing toward the back of the seated crowd, local fire department volunteer David Campbell understood the pain of losing the family all too well. He found the bodies of the mother and her two children in a field near their destroyed home, the youngest baby still secured in a car seat meant for protection.
The discovery has weighed heavily on Campbell. A church offered counseling to the first responders to aid in the process of emotional healing, but the men and women still vividly remember.
“Most of what it brings back for me is the family we lost. We lost a whole family,” Campbell said. “Remembering them is the main thing. The houses and stuff can be put back together. They can be rebuilt, but losing that family? That has hurt me more than anything.”
Like Campbell, Barney Harding wasn’t accustomed to receiving assistance. Having served in the Army for 27 years, he’s normally the one providing relief to those in need. But the March 2, 2012 tornadoes changed all that. While he and his family were enjoying a cruise, his house was completely destroyed. As he sat powerless 400 miles off the coast of Florida, family and friends rushed to his home to salvage anything not shattered by the storms.
Eight months to the day the tornado struck, the Hardings moved into their rebuilt home. But even now, they have a hard time forgetting the past year. Barney Harding said being with others at events like this remembrance ceremony can provide some respite.
“For me, it’s really nice to know that it wasn’t something that happened and just went away,” he said. “We all share something together. It kind of puts everybody at peace knowing everybody is together.”
Relief organizations hope to continue fostering this community spirit in Pekin so neither the tragedies nor the triumphs of that March day are forgotten. March2Recovery members Judy Johnson and Jennifer Mills-Knutsen were on hand to lend their support to the commemoration. The group has done much to aid in the reconstruction efforts of the town and Johnson said they are pleased with their accomplishments. Even still, the work is not complete.
“It’s important that we’re here today, first of all so that people know the recovery isn’t over and done. There are still people waiting to get homes and have their houses rebuilt,” Mills-Knutsen said. “But even for those who are back home again, it was a really traumatic experience.”
Events like the one held on the anniversary, she continued, allowed those affected know they are not alone. They can relate to the experiences of others and talk about all aspects of the tragedy.
In order to ensure that these stories of hope in adversity are not lost, March2Recovery has undertaken a special project to preserve the memories. People may submit written stories, photos or scrapbook pages describing how the tornadoes personally affected their lives.
“People are realizing as things start to be put back together, they don’t want to forget. They don’t want to forget what experiences they’ve had or how they’ve recovered,” Mills-Knutsen said. “We’re offering people a chance to record these stories.”
Now underway, the organization is also scheduling times to videotape survivor’s recollections. All the submitted works will be compiled and given to the Clark County Museum so a first-hand record can be shared with future generations. Those interested may contact March2Recovery by phone at -294-1677 or visit their website at March2Recovery.org.
“People need to know that they’re not alone in remembering and feeling a sense of loss as this [anniversary] day comes,” Mills-Knutsen said. “It also helps people to find a sense of hope in the middle of all this too.”