Les Wallace walks down Water Street soon after the tornado struck. Wallace said the duplex he was living in was completely destroyed. “I don’t know how I survived,” he said. | STEVE MATZKER

The students of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Journalism gained great experience and served their community by documenting the devastation of a tornado that killed eight and tore apart the town of Harrisburg in February of 2012. Not only did they cover the aftermath as the news broke, they transmitted for daily media coverage and produced a book that raised $15,000* for rebuilding efforts.

Mark Dolan, assistant professor of photojournalism and new media at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and elected NPPA board member, cancelled the lab for his class the day of the storm so that students could go out and document the tornado.

“The storm broke early Wednesday morning (4:56 a.m. – the name of the book) – the local morning news shows (TV and Radio) were reporting on it as information started coming in. There wasn’t a lot of information at first, as it took a while until people fully realized how serious the damage was. By about 6 a.m. the local news shows began reporting live from the area and we began to see visuals of the damage.”

 

Left: Automobiles were strewn about like toys as the EF-4 tornado ripped through the area. | ERIC GINNARD Right: People walk through the carnage at the Gaskins City subdivision, on the south east side of Harrisburg. | LYNNETTE OOSTMEYER

“Documenting Harrisburg was the most difficult situation I have experienced as a journalist,” said Danielle McGrew, a senior who will be graduating in May. Her close friend and roommate is from Harrisburg, which heightened the impact.

“I woke up February 29 to my mom’s frantic phone calls. “Is Laila’s family okay?” she was asking. My family and hers had become friends over the years of our friendship, and they lived in Harrisburg. I had no idea why their safety was in question until my mom explained the news of the tornado that had struck the town only hours ago. My reaction was completely subconscious. I have to go shoot this. I texted Laila’s mom to make sure they were safe (they were) and called Eric Ginnard, my photojournalist best friend. Before I really knew what I was doing, we were on our way. Halfway there, what we were about to photograph really hit me… suddenly, I dreaded entering Harrisburg, but I felt called by duty. “

Left: At one point, 200 Ameren trucks responded to help in the aftermath. | NATHAN HOEFERT Right: Debris and insulation from the tornado are snagged by a fence in a Harrisburg neighborhood. | STEVE MATZKER

Steve Matzker was a junior about ready to complete his bachelor’s in journalism with a photojournalism concentration at the time the tornado hit. He covered the aftermath for the Chicago Tribune and also acted as the photo editor for the book.

“When I realized the magnitude of the situation I honestly started to feel like I didn’t belong.  It was their experience to own, and I was just an outsider.  I was overwhelmed with the destruction and the Harrisburg residents and emergency responders digging through the debris.  I began by using a long lens and forcing myself to just shoot.  But this made me feel more like an outsider because of the distance I kept between people.  I remembered what my professors Mark Dolan and Phil Greer emphasized; which is to get close and connect with people so you don’t feel like a vulture.  Tell their stories.  I followed their advice and was amazed how open people were after such an event.  I think it was cathartic for them to describe the tornado in their own words.”

Bob Pavelonis (left) and Mark Whitler inspect damage to the Pavelonis’ home on Sullivan Street, just hours after the tornado hit. Whitler, a family friend, had installed the cabinetry in the home in 2010. Miki Pavelonis said she and her husband Bob were awakened by the family dogs moments before the tornado hit. “We could have been killed,” she said. | NICOLE HESTER

Dolan: “Some of the students had a difficult time documenting the destruction they were witnessing, and some made pictures but then had a difficult time approaching the people they photographed. Some students said they felt uncomfortable approaching the victims of the storm who were so clearly traumatized.

Some students showed us images of community members going through the rubble of their homes and businesses for which they didn’t get any name or information – some said that they felt “guilty” taking the photographs and were concerned the victims would view them as “voyeurs” who didn’t respect their privacy.

Left: Most residents whose homes were in the path of the deadly tornado lost irreplaceable treasures that day, such as family photos and a lifetime of collected memorabilia. Recovered photos were initially displayed in the library for residents to identify, according to Sherry Hinant, genealogy librarian. Unclaimed photos were later boxed and moved to the offices of the Harrisburg Daily Register. | PAT SUTPHIN Right: Loeva Raymer, 88, a retired school teacher, stands amid her belongings in her front yard. | JON-ERIK BRADFORD

Professor Phil Greer and I explained to the students (during our editing sessions and in class) that if they weren’t talking to the victims and getting the information, then they were just voyeurs – we explained how these images, and the information behind those images, were important in terms that went far beyond their own individual photographic experiences.

The students returned to the community during the days that followed, and they continued to photograph. Bolstered by what we told them, many of them who did not get information the first day, sought out the people they had previously photographed and spoke with them.”

Left: Volunteers quickly joined together to clear debris from Dream Baskets Gifts and Cafe, which has since been reopened. | JESSICA TEZAK  Right: Ethan Mauney, 11, of Harrisburg, stands on the front porch where a home used to stand in Harrisburg. Ethan said his grandparents were in the hospital for injuries sustained from the storm. His grandfather, Blaine Mauney, died from his injuries May 31. | ISAAC SMITH

The students helped break national news the day of the storm as their pictures helped to illuminate the destruction.

Matzker: “Phil Greer put Lynnette Oostmeyer and I in contact with Todd Panagopoulos at the Chicago Tribune.  I called him up late morning and within hours we were uploading our images to him from the Harrisburg Burger King.  I don’t know how the images were played the day of, but the next morning I was told my image was on page one of the Chicago Tribune.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited.”

The tornado destroyed St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Ridgway. All that remained of the 110-year- old gothic style church was the entrance door, altar, and tabernacle. | ISAAC SMITH Right: The tornado that leveled St. Joseph’s Catholic Church hit Ridgway at 5:10 a.m., injuring 12 people and damaging 140 homes and businesses in that community. | CHRIS ZOELLER

McGrew: “I was nervous that community members would not want us photographing them in their vulnerability, but they were just grateful that somebody cared. Eric (Ginnard, a fellow student) and I spent most of our time in working-class residential areas with people whose homes were past salvaging, and they were willing to let us into their lives. They would even offer us snacks or drinks, which the relief services were distributing, while everything they owned lay scattered across the ground. They would open up to me about the terrifying experience of surviving a tornado, sometimes trapped underneath their house’s debris or flung across the street, and I would hug them and sometimes take a few moments to help them clean. Perhaps I’m not really supposed to do that, but…”

(From left to right) Eldorado firefighters Cody Mitchell, Patrick Mings, and Derek McKinnies patrol the streets of the Garden Heights section of Harrisburg the morning of the storm. | LYNNETTE OOSTMEYER

Dolan: “After the second day of our students photographing in the community, we realized that, as a group, the students’ coverage of the tornado was strong, and it was Professor Greer who first brought up the idea of producing a book from their storm coverage.

Dena McDonald stands in the wreckage of her mother’s Brady Street home. McDonald’s mother, Mary Osman, was one of the eight people who died as a result of the tornado. | SAMANTHA VAUGHAN

The students continued to photograph though the weekend, documenting the many volunteers from around the region (including a large contingent of students, faculty and staff from the University) came in to help with the cleanup. They also covered funerals and memorial services for the eight Harrisburg residents who lost their lives as a result of the tornado.

Steve Riley, who helped his grandmother, Utha Angelly, after her house was destroyed, looks across her yard at the contents of her living room. | DANIELLE MCGREW

By Monday morning the talk about the possibility of producing a book became much more serious. We brought it up to our department chair, Bill Freivogel, who loved the idea. Our News Writing Professor, Bill Recktenwald, lives in the Harrisburg area and he began talking about it to Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg, who was very enthusiastic.

Professor Recktenwald also approached four Harrisburg businesses about placing ads in the book, which helped offset some of the cost of the printing. He then approached SIU Chancellor Rita Cheng about fronting the remaining cost of the printing, which she immediately agreed to. “

Left: The American flag flew at the funerals of the six Harrisburg residents who lost their lives Feb. 29. | DANIELLE MCGREW
Right: Members of the Osman family grieve at the community worship service held at the Harrisburg High School March 4. Their family matriarch, Mary Osman, 75, was laid to rest March 3. | PAT SUTPHIN

Once the book was finalized, they arranged for an unveiling at the Harrisburg library. “The book was sold for $10 with all of the profits going to the community relief efforts – they sold half of the books the day of the reception at the library – they raised $15,000* for the community,” said Dolan.

Jon-Erik Bradford, a SIU photojournalism student, helps Joe Milligan fold a flag found tangled in a tree at his father’s store, Energy Mart, which was destroyed in the tornado. Bradford is an 8-year veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq. Harrison Milligan, 6, stands behind his father. | DANIELLE MCGREW

Matzker: “The community was grateful for what we did with their images and stories.  When we went back to Harrisburg for the book ceremony, I was blown away by the number of people who came up to me and expressed gratitude for what we had done. In the daily news cycle, even at a student run newspaper, it’s easy to play a story for a while and let it fade.  But I’m proud of the fact we made something permanent for the residents of Southern Illinois to hold onto and remember that day by.”

Dolan added that their annual fall workshop is tentatively planned to document the town of Harrisburg as a follow-up to the tornado coverage, as requested by the mayor of the town.

Mark Dolan is an assistant professor of photojournalism and new media at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and NPPA board member.

Steve Matzker is a recent graduate from the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Journalism.  Raised in Barnhart, Missouri, he spent the decade (or so) after high school roaming around, searching for a way of life he could believe in; and then he found the craft of visual storytelling.

Danielle McGrew is a senior in photojournalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her work has been published in the Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale Times, and the Daily Egyptian. Her most recent project, a book entitled Through My Lens: Family Farms in Southern Illinois, has been published by the SIU University Press.

***Initial publication of this post said that approximately $17,000 was raised by the students for rebuilding efforts. That was estimated by Dolan, but the updated number is $15,000 according to Bill Recktenwald of Southern Illinois University. Edited on 02/01/2013. ***