Helping the Tornado Victims in Illinois
by Leanna Cossman
Sinai Temple sent a small, but hearty, group of volunteers to Harrisburg, IL on Sunday, March 4th, 2012 to assist with debris removal after the town was demolished by an F4 tornado.
Our day started at Sinai Temple at 3:40 a.m. and we were on the road by 4 as the morning volunteer shift Harrisburg started at 8a.m. Safe and comfortable transportation was provided, free of charge, by Piattran out of Monticello. They sent a small bus and a driver and we can’t thank Piattran and Lisa Olson enough for keeping us safe on this long drive.
Paperwork, waivers, and assignments took us about 20 minutes at the Operation Blessing mobile office in Harrisburg and we were joined with a larger group of volunteers from across IL and surrounding states. After a brief group meeting we were put on local buses and taken to the site of the tornado damage. Police officers were guarding every corner and one could not get in without a resident’s pass or the wristbands we were given. We walked a short way and found a corner that would keep us busy for the rest of the day. A partially destroyed home, a double wide trailer, and a third residence all piled on top of each other, on one corner, and a man by himself trying to sort through it all.
Roy told us that the foundation that sat across the narrow street had been the site of his elderly parents’ home and that everything in the pile belonged to them. They were hiding in a closet when the tornado hit and had been blown across and found in the pile. His mother was recovering and is scheduled to be released from the hospital on Monday but his father, who already had significant medical problems, will probably not survive the injuries he sustained. As we talked with Roy we couldn’t help but notice the Hebrew writing on his sweater. It spelled IDF. Roy and his parents are Jewish.
We spent the day making piles of debris; vegetation, household materials, appliances, hazmat materials, and metal all must be sorted properly for pick-up by city and state officials. We moved tons of debris, most of it indistinguishable. It is amazing how a tornado can reduce homes to nothing more than bits and pieces of material with no discernible origin. Roy worked beside us with a quiet desperation. His logical mind knew that there was really nothing worth saving, but every piece that we found was all that he and his parents had left. At the end of the day the salvage pile contained a few photos, a beige chair, three pillows, and a few medication bottles. Nothing else remains of the life that Roy’s parents had built together.
We didn’t save any lives today. Our work was not grand or glamorous. Some might say that all that we did today was make smaller piles out of the big piles. But I would disagree. Today we gave a little bit of peace to a man named Roy and to his parents whom we will never meet. Roy’s parents will probably never know who we were, and that is just fine with me. The few pictures that we found are all that they have left of their home and I’m glad that we were able to provide that small comfort to them. Pictures don’t seem like much but when they are all that there is, they become everything. This week, when I say the Mi Sheberakh it will be for Roy and his family. May they find healing and comfort as they begin the next phase of their recovery.
Leanna Cossman is a member of Sinai Temple in Champaign-Urbana, Illiniois.
If you would like to help tornado victims, please visit the URJ Disaster Relief webpage for a listing of our partner organizations accepting donations.