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OUR VIEW: A year later, we remember the helpers

Fire chief John Nevins looks at the old tornado siren that sounded to alert the Village of Naplate prior to the arrival of the 2017 tornado. The siren will be placed at a park in the village to serve as a memorial to the event.
Fire chief John Nevins looks at the old tornado siren that sounded to alert the Village of Naplate prior to the arrival of the 2017 tornado. The siren will be placed at a park in the village to serve as a memorial to the event.

THE ISSUE: Remembering deadly tornado on one-year anniversary

OUR VIEW: Stories of hope and help resonated in a time of loss

Our job here is to give you the news, what happened and why it matters. Headlines, interviews, photographs. We try to limit the area we cover to the places where our readers live, work and play. If it matters to you, it matters to us. Sometimes we have a pretty good idea what will matter. Other times we need our readers to alert us to something of importance. But always, every day we set ink to newsprint, we’re trying to give you something that makes a connection to your community.

And, you know, we like to think we’re pretty good at the job. The newsroom has some pretty seasoned professionals who have covered all manner of stories, from happy to sad to wonderful to tragic. But there are times when the news absolutely overwhelms. It spills beyond the pages, can’t be contained on the website and taxes the limits of social media accounts. Those are the days when we all live the news as it happens, when something so dramatic happens it changes entire communities forever.

One year ago today — Feb. 28, 2017 — was one of those days.

As a violent storm moved westward toward La Salle County, we — and you — knew it would be bad. With memories of tornadoes affecting Utica and Streator, not to mention plenty of other Illinois towns, newspaper staffers followed safety precautions we urged everyone else to adhere, hunkering down in the basement and gleaning what information we could.

A tornado touched down at Buffalo Rock State Park and traveled 11.5 miles to just northwest of Marseilles. At its base it was about 800 yards wide — roughly a half mile — and was on the ground for 18 minutes, traveling across land at about 38 mph. Storm experts later rated the twister an EF3, indicating winds of 136 to 165 mph.

As soon as it was safe, we came out and began to tell the story.

Immediately there was loss: Ottawan Wayne L. Tuntland Sr. died after being struck by a falling tree in his yard. His son-in-law, David Allen “D.J.” Johnson, died a day later in a Peoria hospital from his own injuries sustained while trying to save Tuntland and his son, Johnson’s husband Toby.

Then came the property damages, the toll of which still is not fully ascertained. But the numbers we do have are staggering: Ottawa Building Official Mike Sutfin reported about $39 million in damages known so far, a figure that doesn’t include perhaps another $25 million to the Pilkington glass factory. Sutfin said 435 buildings sustained some damage, with a quarter of those classified as serious. At least 20 Naplate buildings were effectively destroyed. Ottawa issued 1,100 storm-related no-fee building permits, and by the morning after the tornado police had already issued some 300 badges to contractors who cleared background checks.

Far less easy to calculate is the impact of the mental trauma: the emotions of cowering for safety, of re-emerging to assess the loss, of lifestyles or possessions than can never be reclaimed. There are the responders, trained and otherwise, who bravely walked into a living nightmare, encountering sights and sounds that might live with them yet today and for the foreseeable future.

Yet the numbers documenting hope and help are uplifting. The Starved Rock Country Community Foundation collected $301,000 in donations and provided help to 336 people who requested aid. From a newsroom standpoint, the stories of help exceeded the pace of the stories of suffering. Over here some cases of bottled water. Over there an offer to take in those who need a bed. Free pizza. Church kitchens cranking out lunch, no questions asked. A shelter for displaced pets. When tragedy strikes, there’s something beautiful about the supply of helpers outstripping the demand of those in need.

We wish we didn’t have so many fresh memories about fires, floods, storms and other devastating happenings. But it’s clear you all learned from those terrible experiences that the first thing to do is help however you can. You don’t ask what happened, you know. You don’t ask why it mattered, you sense it innately. And then you just go help — whoever, wherever, however — and you show everyone who comes in when tragedy strikes just what it means to be of here, from here.

It means you’re a helper. A giver. A person who puts community above self, perhaps because someone did it for you once, or perhaps because you fear you might need help the next time. But no matter why, you help.

We tried to tell all those stories, too. But we couldn’t keep up, really, because the helpers weren’t pausing to ask for attention. They just helped because that’s what you do. All of you, it seems. And we couldn’t be prouder to be your newspaper. Your neighbor. You matter to us, and more importantly, you continue to take care of each other.

Thank you.

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