A month after a tornado, Bryant still has a long road back to normal
It's been one month since an EF-3 tornado cut an 18-mile path through Fulton County. It scattered debris, felled power lines and grain bins, and swept directly through the tiny village of Bryant, population 163.
Bryant still bears the marks of the tornado. Piles of debris dot yards, tarps cover the village hall, and multiple roofing crews remove the few shingles left behind on homes.
Mayor Daniel Denham was at his 7-year-old daughter's soccer practice in neighboring Canton on April 4, when a village trustee called him.
“The original phone call was, 'Hey your house took some damage, you better get home, we got hit by a tornado,’” said Denham. “By the time I got here, I couldn’t get into town because of the downed trees, downed power lines. There were people everywhere. It was just mass chaos.”
The tornado ripped the front door off the Denhams' home. A storage shed blew into the neighbor's yard. He said his wife, Melissa, held a flashlight for about an hour as they tried to plug any holes in the roof ahead of incoming rain. They eventually relented and got a hotel room to stay dry.
This is Denham's first term as mayor. He began making a list of the steps to start recovery.
“What I knew I needed to do right off was to make sure the people in town were okay, that nobody was seriously injured, that no one had died or anything like that. That was my first, number one priority,” he said. “Beyond that was then just making sure the people in town were squared away for at least a night until the next morning, when the sun came up and we could really assess the situation.”
The situation greeting the mayor with the early morning light was grim. According to Fulton County officials, 21 houses were destroyed by the tornado, some stripped down to their foundations. Nineteen additional houses sustained "major" damage, and 152 in all were affected.
It's Fulton County Director of Emergency Management Chris Helle's job to quantify the damage.
“We have a damage assessment done, it’s virtually impossible to come up with a financial number,” he said. “Because each home is different and trying to grasp some of those concepts is difficult at best.”
Melissa Denham is Bryant's village clerk. She said their life since the tornado revolves around managing the village's recovery.
“When I sat down and figured up hours, we were spending 15 to 16 hours a day just up here, trying to take care of everybody else,” she said. “Then because we were taking care of everybody else, we haven’t even bothered to take care of our stuff at home yet.”
Immediately following the tornado, Daniel Denham said locals cleared trees from the road and documented damage, while aid organizations like the Salvation Army, Red Cross and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency coordinated relief efforts. The village hall was temporarily converted into a resource center for residents.
“We had the Salvation Army in here and they served dinner up here every night, well they served three meals a day up here every day for almost two weeks,” said Daniel. “Every day we had 40, 50, 60 people eating meals and helping their neighbors and helping cleanup debris and helping saw off trees and helping haul trash off, just whatever, people have been pitching in big time.”
Helle estimates the State of Illinois Emergency Management Agency hit the ground to perform a damage assessment and help with clearing debris around two hours after the tornado hit. Community resources were plentiful, too. The mayors of surrounding communities arrived shortly after the storm.
“We didn’t need a significant amount of resources, like IDOT construction vehicles,” said Helle. “We had a lot brought in from the surrounding communities. That helped tremendously.”
The mayor of Canton sent his police department to help direct traffic, the mayor of St. David allowed Bryant board meetings in his offices, Lewistown's mayor helped supply water while the mayor of Banner donated money and offered equipment and time. Daniel Denham agrees the support of Bryant's neighbors was critical.
“We’d have been lost if it weren’t for the surrounding support,” he said. “Quite literally, because we did not, nor do we still have the infrastructure for the help that needed to be done.”
He said the aid from organizations began to taper off after a couple weeks. But Bryant still has a long way still to go.
The state of Illinois doesn't give direct monetary aid and when it comes to federal assistance, the county doesn't qualify. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, can provide two types of assistance after natural disasters: public assistance for units of local government and individual assistance for those affected.
The requirements for these vary, specifying an amount of uninsured damage caused by the storms. The thresholds are calculated based on the population of a given county or state. Individual assistance specifically is issued through a "presidential disaster declaration.” According to information from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, in Fulton County this would require a little over $147,000 of damage to the county and at least $22.27 million of damage total across the state.
For example, if the tornado had continued on its trajectory from Fulton County into Peoria County, damage from both counties would have contributed to the state total.
Helle said while the damage in Fulton County meets FEMA's county-specific thresholds to qualify, it falls far short of the statewide requirements.
“Approximately 100 people who have worked all their lives, have paid their taxes, have done what’s right, they don’t get help," he said. "But if we had maybe, you know, a larger community impacted, they would have gotten help. It just, it puzzles my mind and infuriates me.”
The entire situation stirs up memories for Washington Mayor Gary Manier, who led his community through the aftermath of a deadly tornado nearly 10 years ago. In the early days of the cleanup operation, he anticipated federal assistance.
“Until we met face to face with FEMA for 7 1/2 hours,” said Manier. “And went line item by line item and realized this wasn’t covered, that wasn’t covered, that wasn’t covered.”
The state of Illinois was eventually able to provide $14.9 million in IDOT funds to Washington's recovery effort to rebuild streets, curbs and gutters.
But Manier, like Helle, sees a need for a change to FEMA policies to account for the populations of smaller communities that can have their lives totally upended by one storm. He points out legislators like U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, congressman Darin LaHood, and former Sen. Mark Kirk have worked on it, without substantial change so far.
“I appreciate all the work they all tried,” said Manier. “But still, unless it’s so much devastation that it qualifies, these smaller communities are really going to continue to suffer.”
For Mayor Denham, monetary support has mainly come from donations and some of the county emergency funds. He's also frustrated by the current structure of federal aid.
“Fulton County’s a low-income county, we’re not Chicago, we’re not Peoria, we’re not Springfield, so the dollars just aren’t here,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because there’s no dollars here, there’s no desire to come and ask if we need any help, I don’t know what the reasoning is behind that.”
In an emailed statement, a representative of FEMA Region 5 said: "At this time, FEMA assistance is not available for damage incurred in Fulton County or the state of Illinois from the recent storms."
You can find more information on how FEMA determines emergency and presidential disaster declarations here.
Denham hopes his own meetings with lawmakers like state Sen. Neil Anderson, state Rep. Norine Hammond, and Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau can help bring about change — both for Bryant, a village with a budget of $65,000 a year, and the next small town in the path of a destructive storm.
“Let’s not tie that up with, it has to be under-insured or uninsured,” he said. “Let’s just say ‘Hey, that town got hit by a tornado, here’s a check for 100 grand to help people get back on their feet. What can we do to help?’ That’s not coming and I don’t know how to get to that.”
Denham said the recovery process is different every day. Sometimes he's helping clear debris or cutting down trees. Sometimes, he's coordinating help with outside agencies and contractors or meeting with lawmakers. Sometimes he's helping people still displaced by the storm.
“We’ve still got a lot of people here in town, that their homes are damaged, they were under insured or uninsured completely. People that are displaced and are no longer living in their homes are living in someone else’s home now,” he said. “So, every day has just been one step closer to try and get everybody’s lives back to some sort of normalcy. Because what seems normal right now, is not normal. It hasn’t been normal for a month.”
Denham is working with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency to try and create a formal emergency response plan for communities around the same size as Bryant. He said it's not a case of if another major storm strikes a small town, but when.
The camera crews have left, but the village of Bryant still has a long way to go on the road to recovery. The residents are asking the rest of the state not to forget that.