After tornado, a tight-knit town draws even closer

Awakened by the sound of debris hitting the house, Betty Hastings just had time to duck and close the bedroom door when she heard the breaking glass.

Then, the TV set crashed to the floor. The bedroom door flew out of her hand. The roof disappeared. In less than 10 seconds, half of her nearly finished dream home was sucked into the tornado and collapsed. Or vanished.

But then, hearing cries for help from her neighbor's home, Mrs. Hastings groped her way to the storage area below her porch and laid hands on a heavy car jack. She and her husband, Jon, used it to prop up debris that had fallen on their neighbor until rescue workers could come to complete the job.

"It blew me away [later] when I saw the front of my house" covered with debris, she recalls. "How did I get to that jack?... Tell me that wasn't God's work!"

Like so many other disasters, the deadly tornadoes and high winds that hit Marble Hill, Mo., and small towns in at least 10 other states this week stirred that most basic human impulse to help.

While Marble Hill is the kind of place where a middle-school concert becomes a community event, the tragedy that fell suddenly and inexplicably from the Missouri sky has drawn this tight-knit town even closer.

Despite damage to their own homes, people rushed to aid neighbors. Families huddled together. Friends – even strangers – showed up to comfort and offer shelter.

The story was the same in each of the communities hit over the weekend. In Cypress, Ill., volunteer firefighter Debra Ming raced to the elementary school and broke into the building to help some dozen residents reach safety, just before a twister hit.

Although the tornado damaged the school, the residents who had been evacuated there were fine. By the following day, volunteer firemen from as far as two hours away had gathered to help clean up.

In Irvington, Ky., where one man died, people gathered to help a man salvage what he could from the rubble of his mobile home. The scene was similar in nearby Dongola, Ill. (pop. 750), where one elderly resident lost her life.

The community hit hardest was also the largest. La Plata, Md., a rural town of 6,500 quickly becoming a far suburb of Washington, saw the storm take three lives, raze some 80 buildings, and damage 420 more. It was the state's most powerful tornado on record, and the governor declared a state of emergency. Local officials pledged to rebuild.

A few miles outside Marble Hill, the twister hit about 12:30 a.m. It destroyed most of the Hastings' home and four others at the private lakeside development. Soon after – and long before it got light – emergency personnel and family and friends began to gather to see what they could do.

Mrs. Hastings saw nephews and friends, and an ex-boyfriend of her daughter's. Even the ex-wife of the ex-boyfriend showed up to help. About 100 yards away, a man suddenly showed up to help Charlie Smith saw the limbs off a huge fallen oak that had narrowly missed his weekend cabin. "He said [the storm] had barely missed him and if it would hit, he hoped someone would help him this way," Mr. Smith recalls.

By the end of Sunday, an estimated 100 volunteers had come by. Some delivered food, others ported fresh water. Late Monday, one young man was still operating his own heavy machinery to clear the mass of trees and construction debris still littering the place.

"Bollinger County people – you cannot believe it," Hastings exclaims.

In Marble Hill itself, a community of 1,500 that lies in the rolling hills of southeastern Missouri, physical signs of the disaster were few. Boys were practicing for a baseball game. The local steakhouse was open for supper. But the tornado – and the area's one fatality – clearly weighed on people's minds.

On First Street, a commercial thoroughfare of old-fashioned storefronts, a corner resale shop had hung a sign asking for donations of foods and blankets for the tornado's victims. Down the block, Tom Houchins was just locking up his insurance agency. "It's devastating," he says. Floods caused a lot of damage in the area a few years ago. But in his 25 years here, "this is the first time [a disaster] has taken a life."

Indeed, around the corner, people poured in all Monday to the Liley Funeral Home to pay their respects to Billy Hoover, a sixth-grader who was killed in the storm.

He was at a sleepover with friends a few miles from town when the tornado hit, destroying the house and hurling him some 50 feet.

Some 400 people turned out at the funeral home. "This being a rural area ... has something to do with it," says funeral director Gene Ward. "Everybody knows everybody.... The whole school pretty much turned out, you can see by this."

He points to the many posters that classmates made and signed and hung on the walls of the funeral home. One reads: "Billy the Superstar." Another: "Billy Hoover: Gone not Forgotten."

"This is probably a third of what they made," notes Ty Mungle, principal of the Woodland Middle School where Billy attended. On Monday morning, students met with teachers and clergy to talk over their concerns.

Hastings is thinking things over, too. "What do I take away from this?" she asks herself. "God looks after me."

Only the finished part of her house was insured, as were her husband's boats. The dock and new construction were not, and money looks scarce.

"Your life comes No. 1," she says. "But if you don't have friends and family, you don't have life. I have lost a dream home ..." She hesitates, and after a nephew gives her a hug, she finishes the sentence: "... that will be rebuilt."

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