UTICA, IL (AP) Thousands of people pass through this small town every year on their way to nearby Starved Rock State Park, pumping cash into a downtown lined with restaurants, bars and shops housed in buildings that had stood for more than a century.
Many of those once-sturdy brick and stone storefronts were reduced to rubble by a tornado the night of April 20 that left eight people dead when a watering hole called the Milestone Tap collapsed.
On April 22, residents still clearing splintered tree limbs and boarding up broken windows said the cleanup was a welcome diversion from a tragedy they never expected in their town of less than 1,000 people.
“I don’t think anyone will ever get over the eight deaths. Ever,” said Jim Collins, whose bait and tackle shop that catered to Starved Rock tourists was destroyed by the twister.
Mayor Fred Esmond said he thinks the town will ultimately rebuild and rebound from the psychological damage left in the wake of the deadly tornado.
“Anytime you [lose] local people you saw in the street every day, you have sorrow in your heart,” he said. “But we have to keep moving on, and the people we lost would want us to move on.”
Still, any rebuilding effort won’t come before the start of Starved Rock’s busy season, which runs from spring to fall. The sprawling park, located along the Illinois River about 90 miles southwest of Chicago, draws about 1.8 million visitors a year, more than any other state attraction.
Esmond said that for some downtown businesses, Starved Rock accounted for 60 to 70 percent of their revenue. Some business owners fear those out-of-town dollars could dip because of the shops lost to the tornado and the construction that will follow.
But Amit Shah, who manages a company that bought Utica’s only grocery store last month, thinks the historic downtown might see even more tourists this year.
“Before this, about 99 percent of people didn’t know Utica. Now they know,” said Shah, who expects to double the 25 percent jump in business his store sees during the park’s busy season.
Melissa Harmon, who owns Canal Port Bar & Grill, predicts an even better downtown will emerge from the debris left behind by the tornado.
“I think we’re going to be bigger, brighter, shinier, faster. These people have worked too hard to give up. They’re not going to give up,” said Harmon, whose building suffered no structural damage in the spring storm.
Esmond said the town will look into guidelines so new buildings match the old, historic architecture downtown, an idea endorsed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich when he surveyed the tornado-ravaged city on Wednesday.
“He loved Duffy’s,” Esmond said, referring to a landmark Irish tavern that suffered heavy damage. “[The Gov.] looked in the window and said, ’If you rebuild, rebuild it exactly like it is,’” Esmond added.
Ron Sherman, a damage assessment team leader from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), estimated that 80 percent of the downtown was badly damaged.
FEMA officials visited Utica and several other towns hit by the storms to conduct a preliminary damage assessment.
Even as the FEMA crews worked to finish their assessment, Blagojevich sent a letter to President Bush urging him to declare LaSalle, Putnam, Will and Kankakee counties — plus Grundy, which lies in between those four areas — a federal disaster area.
“Initial reports indicate that over 316 homes have been impacted including 20 homes destroyed and another 87 homes with major damage in the four most severely impacted counties,” Blagojevich said in his letter. “The state of Illinois is facing a multi-billion dollar deficit that hinders our ability to fully and completely recover.”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois also requested that the president declare the counties a federal disaster area.
Blagojevich has already declared LaSalle, Will, Kankakee and Putnam counties state disaster areas.
A federal disaster declaration would make the areas eligible for a variety of grants, loans and other assistance, Sherman said.
A memorial for the eight who lost their lives was held on May 2.