By STEVE BINDER
HARRISBURG, Ill. — For two of Saline County’s agricultural institutions, everything changed significantly during the early morning of Feb. 29, 2012.
As a tornado with wind speeds of up to 175 mph tore through the heart of Harrisburg, the buildings housing the Saline County Farm Bureau and the Southern Farm Supply Co-op along West Robinson Street took substantial beatings.
A year later, the institutions are back in business under new and rebuilt facilities, and a sense of gratification that the loss of life and property damage wasn’t worse.
“Don’t get me wrong; nothing about what happened that morning and shortly after was something I’d wish on anyone, but in a small, small way we were lucky,” said Danny Evans, longtime manager of the Co-op. “People were killed, and we took a big old hit, that’s for sure, but it could have been even worse.”
Eight people died from the storm and a total of 426 residences and 33 businesses sustained some form of damage – 104 homes and 10 businesses were destroyed – at an estimated loss of approximately $9 million.
Most of the damage occurred within the city limits of Harrisburg, but the tornado also hit small areas of nearby Ridgeway and parts of four other southern Illinois counties. This damage preceded similar storms that struck southern Indiana and northern Kentucky three days later, leaving 35 people dead.
Evans’ business took one of the hardest hits during the Harrisburg tornado: it lost two large grain bins, a maintenance facility and its main store. Within the first few days, he said, farming friends helped co-op workers haul out 21 tractor trailer loads of goods to nearby facilities.
“We saved about $750,000 worth of fuels, seed and fertilizer thanks to all the help we received, and I’ll never forget that,” Evans said.
He now works inside a new main store, and will oversee a new bulk oil distribution plant and fueling center. Total damage just to the co-op came in at about $1.2 million, Evans said. Insurance picked up about $900,000.
Up the street at the Saline County Farm Bureau, the agency’s brick building survived mostly intact, but it needed a new roof. Before the work was completed, and during heavy rains two days after the tornado, the building’s interior sustained substantial water damage, said Manager Jody Hughes.
Costs to replace the roof, furniture, carpeting and some equipment totaled about $100,000, she added. “The roof was the main issue for us, and then the water damage. The tornado really was limited mostly to just in town, so a lot of our farmers didn’t report much damage at all,” Hughes said.
Farmers in Saline County were able to get off to a great start last planting season, but they – like many others in the Midwest – suffered the effects of drought.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed this year,” Hughes said. “Lord knows we need a break, right?”