It’s not over yet, by any means.
“This has been my first experience in really uniting the faith-based community with the human services community – and it’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
Those are the words from Dixie Reed a year after a tornado devastated Utica and killed eight people. Reed serves as executive director of the United Way of Illinois Valley and as board chair of the Illinois Valley Recovery Team (IVRT) – which was formed in the wake of the powerful twister.
So far, the 14 agency members of IVRT have served 70 households in counties across the tornado’s path. “We’ve invested a great deal in helping families with rent, mortgage assistance, emergency lodging, relocation, food, utility payments, and replacement of items lost in the storm,” explained Reed. “But the greatest volunteer utilization has been in the ongoing home repairs.”
Last April, the powerful tornado destroyed 78 businesses and homes across the valley, and more than 180 homes were affected in all. Much of the damage was in Utica, where the eight fatalities occurred.
And even though it’s been a year since the powerful twister struck the area, Reed said IVRT is continuing to see new clients.
“It is surprising, but what might be happening is that people have exhausted what insurance they did get, or they’ve experienced a winter now and have perhaps a better idea of where the damages are that they hadn’t anticipated,” she added.
National faith-based disaster relief organizations such as Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Lutheran Disaster Response, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief sent in funds and volunteers to support the relief process. Several local churches are also members of IVRT, including the United Methodist Church in Hennepin.
“Our church wasn’t directly affected by the tornado, but we were involved in the recovery operations from the very beginning,” said the Rev. Brian Caughlan, who noted that his church also helped out families affected in the nearby community of Granville.
“Most of the work we did was connecting victims to resources, but we also got involved with folks on an emotional level by ministering to their emotional needs.”
Caughlan added that as the year anniversary passes, he expects more emotional needs to arise. The new spring weather will cause stress as well, he said, “especially on days when there’s bad weather, because there is a lot of anxiety in that.”
The congregation at Waltham Presbyterian Church in Utica was active in the area’s recovery as well. Waltham’s pastor, the Rev. Roy C. Backus, said much of the help was provided by the church’s numerous farming members.
“We’ve got a great number of farmers who know how to use tools, so many of them helped rebuild things like porches and roofs,” said Backus. The church also raised money to replace computers at the heavily damaged local schools, and even helped to restock local food pantries and provide prayer wherever needed. “It’s phenomenal; this is a church with an amazing and generous heart.”
To help in future disasters, IVRT will continue to exist beyond last year’s tornado recovery. Reed said not only have the involved agencies put everything they could into this recovery, but they all expressed a desire to remain intact so any future recovery efforts would not have to start from scratch again.
“It’s another reason why I’m so pleased our collaboration worked so well – because this was a brand new experience for everyone involved,” noted Reed. “We will write a manual on recovery and have it ready for next time. Not that we ever want to do this again, but every time we come together we’ve all remarked on how much we have learned about what’s available from one another.”
But needs from last year’s tornado are still surfacing, and Reed said IVRT will do all it can to maintain support for these families. Some are asking for home repair help, she said, and others are still in need of mental health counseling. Volunteers and donations will still be needed for the recovery, too.
Another issue that’s been addressed throughout the past year but that will also need continued focus is helping children cope. IVRT made sure the local school districts knew that behavioral health staff was available to both teachers and students.
“We’ve done a lot to help teachers and parents teach children what to do during a storm – because knowledge is the best armor, really,” Reed added. “But we imagine we’ll also focus on more assistance once the school year finishes.”
The emotional trauma for adults continues as well, said Bo Windy, a member of IVRT and board member of the United Way of Illinois Valley. Windy has been serving as the home repair coordinator for IVRT, and said some condemned homes in Utica remain standing one year later.
“I’m sure that affects people’s lives – how can you look at those buildings and not think of the tornado?” he said. “That plays an effect on the community. It’s not over yet, by any means.
“But we’ll still be here. We just want to continue to help people recover and get through this."
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