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Rural IL making quiet recovery

Rural Illinois could well become the forgotten player of "Twister Week 2003."

BY SUSAN KIM | MASSAC COUNTY, Ill. | May 15, 2003

Rural Illinois could well become the forgotten player of "Twister Week 2003."

In Massac County, nestled along the Illinois-Kentucky border, May 6 tornadoes tore through the area, running a swath of damage along the entire length of the county. Debris the kind that ruins difficult-to-repair farm machinery is still hidden in fields. Grain bins have simply disappeared. Irrigation systems have been rolled over fields and across roads. Fences are down and cattle are lost.

All one couple with two young children could find left were a few items of clothing clogged in a barbed wire fence.

Yet Massac County might not attract the kind of help it needs, worries Rev. Ron Ruggles, pastor at the Zion United Church of Christ. "We're not a large, economically blessed county," he said. "We might not receive the federal or state aid that more visible areas would."

Most people in Massac County rely on the agricultural business in some way. "Even if they're not farmers, they sell farm machinery or supplies," said Ruggles.

Then again, people in Massac County are used to pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.

One day when Ruggles was out ministering in the wake of the tornado, somebody asked the pastor what he thought was holding people together. "Our sense of community?" Ruggles guessed.

"No," the man answered. "It's our faith. If we didn't have our faith we'd really be up a creek."

Indeed, right after the tornado hit, Massac County did appear to be up a creek. American Red Cross meal units wouldn't arrive until two days later. And Ruggles realized the church had to plug the gap.

By early this week, the church had served some 4,000 meals to tornado survivors and those helping them. The church is sending work teams out to walk the fields and pick up debris. It has provided water for anyone who needs it. And it issues emergency housing funds for people who lost everything.

Ruggles has observed people going the extra mile like never before, he said. "I mean, folks took off work, and folks who were retired were out there in the heat and humidity they had no business being out there."

Eventually, the burden of recovery coupled with less visibility might cause collective strain in places like Massac County, worried Tom Davis, a disaster response and recovery liaison with Church World Service. "I would think psychologically and spiritually that people might feel forgotten," he said.

Massac County's story might repeat itself in many Illinois locations. At least 10 other counties across the central part of the state also sustained tornado damage, some on May 6, others on May 11.

The tornadoes were part of a record-breaking spate nearly 400 twisters in all that struck across the U.S. in May, killing nearly 50 people.

At this point it's difficult to count the number of people with damaged homes or farms because many haven't come forward, observed the Rev. Gary Kniepkamp of the United Church of Christ's national disaster ministries network. "It always presents a challenge to find out who's been affected."

Ruggles, who is still hearing news about families in need, agreed. "One single mother with two children had gotten vouchers to buy food at the grocery store, but she had lost everything - she had no place to cook it," he said.

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