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Illinois Tornadoes

Sen. Richard J. Durbin

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Madam President, it was just about 10 days ago that a tornado struck Harrisburg, IL. This is a picture of some of the devastation. It doesn't tell the story.

I have been a child of Illinois and grew up in what we consider to be Tornado Alley. Being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night with the air raid siren blaring and my dad heading down into the basement was just one of the rites of passage. Luckily, our home was never hit, but we saw a lot of homes that were. They might have some shingles torn off and siding ripped away, windows broken, and maybe in the worst case a roof actually lifted off a house.

This case here was an extraordinary one. The picture can't even depict the story. It was a level 4 tornado--and level 5 is the highest--with 175 mile-an-hour winds, or winds more powerful than Hurricane Katrina, and it hit this little town of Harrisburg, IL, and about 20 miles away the town of Ridgway, IL.

I went down and took a look. I saw homes that had been torn off their slab foundations and tossed around like toys. Seven people died as a result of this tornado. There might have been more, but it was a tornado that struck at about 5 a.m., and many people were home. Had they been outside or shopping at one of the malls that were obliterated, many more people would have died. Fortunately, more didn't.

The heroic efforts by the local people at every single level really made me proud to represent that State and my family having roots in that part of the State. It was a great outpouring of caring, affection, and even bravery as people rescued those who were lost and covered by the debris. The Red Cross was on the scene right away. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency was there as well. Everybody pitched in, both in Harrisburg and in Ridgway.

We finished our job, and we heard, as I was leaving on Saturday--this was 10 days ago--that the Federal agencies were on their way this last Monday, a week ago today. I felt confident, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois felt confident, and our State emergency management director, Jonathan Monken, also felt confident that we would get the Federal designation. That is why it was absolutely stunning when we learned yesterday that FEMA turned down these communities.

Take a look at this shopping center that literally collapsed. Fortunately, no one was in it at 5 a.m. The devastation from 175 mile-an-hour winds could be seen all over Harrisburg and the town of Ridgway, where the local Catholic church was devastated.

This decision by FEMA is out of touch with reality--the reality of the damage and the suffering and the reality of this notion that somehow the State and local governments can take care of this.

Historically we have said that when a storm reaches a certain threshold of damage, the Federal Government steps in. In my time in the House and Senate, I have never, ever questioned that decision. I have stepped up to help every State in the Union with disaster assistance, knowing that this could happen to my State.

Now, when FEMA says we don't qualify for Federal assistance, it means that the Small Business Administration is not likely to help businesses in the area with disaster recovery small business loans, for example. As we can see from the photos I have shown, disaster loans are going to be desperately needed by businesses in the area. Harrisburg is going to have a difficult if not impossible time coming back from this disaster without help.

Our State of Illinois can't do it on its own. Governor Quinn and Jonathan Monken have determined that the damage is just too severe for the State. I spoke with the Governor this morning. He is going to appeal the FEMA decision. We are joining him, on a bipartisan basis--Senator Kirk's office is joining our office--to appeal this FEMA decision. Come Wednesday, in my office here in the U.S. Capitol, we are inviting the Administrator of FEMA to come in and make the case as to why this devastation doesn't warrant Federal disaster designation. Sixteen thousand people in these small communities have been displaced from their homes. Local leaders and volunteers have turned up from everywhere, but they can't do it alone. We need to have the Federal Government providing its level of assistance to make sure these communities are made whole, put back together so life can go on. We can never, ever replace the seven lives that were lost, but let's replace the spirit of those communities with Federal, State, and local cooperation.

Madam President, I yield the floor.

The Senator from Michigan.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow

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Madam President, before I speak about an amendment I have on the Transportation bill, I wish to commend my friend, the Senator from Illinois, for fighting for his people. I understand what it is like to have devastation happen in a State, and I want to thank him and let him know the people of Michigan certainly stand with the people of Illinois and want to be supportive at a time like this because this could happen to any one of us. So I thank him for being such a champion for the people he represents.