Surveying Harrisburg's path of destruction
Mayor Eric Gregg said the path of destruction in Harrisburg, Illinois, was "three or four football fields wide."
March 1st, 2012
02:12 AM ET

Surveying Harrisburg's path of destruction

Editor's note: CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Rose Marie Arce traveled to Harrisburg, Illinois, Wednesday night to survey damage from the devastating EF4 tornado that killed six people there. Soledad O'Brien is live covering the devastation for CNN"s morning show Starting Point.  Here is what they saw:

We headed into the disaster area, driving northeast from St. Louis, where you could feel the pockets of hot and cold air buffeting each other. Early reports were that six people died in Harrisburg, Illinois, so that's where we were headed.

The storm hit Harrisburg, with winds as high as 170 miles per hour, cutting a swath through the city.  The mayor described the path as "three or four football fields wide."

The greatest damage was in southern Harrisburg, in the southern part of the state.  About 200 to 300 homes are estimated to be damaged or destroyed, and the Harrisburg Medical Center was also hit. The tornado tore through a wall and left several patients' room open to the elements.In Harrisburg the first sign of the severe damage is the flashing lights from police cars.  Along Commercial Street we see a mini-mall, a medium-sized strip mall that's collapsed in a tangle of metal and concrete. A massive yellow "Cash Store" sign has collapsed and leans backward into the rubble.  Steel supporting beams are the only structures left standing.

Ringed in a semi-circle is a half-dozen reporters, along with satellite trucks.  The shopping mall has become a center of sorts. We meet the town's mayor, Eric Gregg, in the parking lot, along with the sheriff.

We make our way along the backside of the mall, along a residential road.  A lone police car with a flashing light blocks the way into a small street. It's quaint cream-colored duplex apartments have been shattered by the strength of the tornado.  Some apartments are standing, their windows intact.  But others look like they've exploded, crushed cars still in the garages.

At the heart of the worst damage, where five people died on this street, there is nothing left of their homes.  The foundations are empty, not even walls remain.  Under curfew the street is dark and empty. Only the brisk wind blows down the road.

Danny Morse owns this housing development.  Of the 10 identical homes, about half of them were built in 2005, but the rest were newly built in November.  Many of those who died lived in these new homes. He points to the rubble of the farthest house.

"A girl lived there. She was young, 22," Morse said. "She had just moved in November."

He is a large man, wearing a button-down work shirt and boots.  He looks around anxiously, but he's calm: "I just can't believe it."

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Filed under: Illinois • Tornadoes • U.S. • Weather
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. tracey

    Just a note, Harrisburg is SOUTHeast of St Louis, not northeast.

    March 1, 2012 at 4:14 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I have seen $500,000 homes built this same way...

      March 1, 2012 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Sorr, put this in the wrong spot.
      This was meant for the post below.

      March 1, 2012 at 7:54 am | Report abuse |
  2. MCCdS

    Year after year, tornadoes and hurricanes destroy homes in the U.S. When will they stop building houses with matchsticks that fly off, fall, and take lives with them. Wreckage shows the flimsy materials they use for building homes.
    Woodframes should be used as indoor support only, with stronger materials, like solid stone and double-width brick for the exterior and for the outside structure of homes. No more trailer homes that tip over, either. Much tragedy and loss of homes and lives could be avoided.

    March 1, 2012 at 5:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Mememe

      insulated concrete forms (ICF) are even better for exterior walls

      March 1, 2012 at 6:59 am | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      never mind that no one could afford to buy them then..

      March 1, 2012 at 7:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Jerry Cook

      Yea right, we would all live different if money wasn't a factor.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      @jerry: who wouldn't? it sounded like sarcasm, yet it was like saying 'yeah, right, and the sky is blue.'

      if money wasn't a factor, i'd own my home, i'd have a new car, and a cage in my living room for dancing girls – a different one for every day.

      March 1, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      As civil engineer, building a home to withstand those wind loads is not practicle for the average person to afford. Creating a safe room is a better option. Please see FEMA's website or just google FEMA safe room for plans. Furthermore, new construction can be designed with hurrican clips to create a continuous path for wind loads to be transferred to the foundation system. Older homes can be retorfitted with the same systems, but it is rather costly. Plus most of those sytems are only rated for 130 mph winds. You are talking about the hand of god with some of these storms. THe safe room is really the best option. Or build Fort Knox.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • curious

      I am wondering how you believe the average American could afford a home that you are suggesting. People live in trailers because they have to not because they want too. Wouldn't we all love a tornado proof home.

      March 1, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • mnw

      it dont matter if it was a brick house or wood the tornado that came thru harrisburg il took it all down their was brick house that got 1 wall left nd wood houses that r still their its a freakin tornado it takes thing down no matter wat it is

      March 3, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  3. DDP

    "The rains that come with these storms make the ground fertile and rich, which means they tend to hit the breadbasket of any country – and the United States is no exception. The great irony is they tend to hit at the most beautiful time of year."
    First, the rains from "these" storms do not make the ground fertile and rich – the geology makes the groudn fertile and rich. Rains with a tornado are not any more "rich" than any other rain event. IF they tend to hit the breadbasket of any country it is because the topography is right for tornadoes. Second, I would not call late February the most beautiful time of year.

    March 1, 2012 at 6:27 am | Report abuse |
    • BKINGC

      It's the flood-plains that gave the fertility to this land. My heart goes out to this community where my pioneer ancestors called home.

      March 1, 2012 at 7:14 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Tor season typically starts later than l;ate February...during the time when it IS the most beatuiful time of the year.

      My condolences to all affected by this storm, and to the families of those who lost loved ones.

      March 1, 2012 at 7:53 am | Report abuse |
  4. Jean SmilingCoyote

    As far as I know, reinforced concrete is what's needed to withstand EF4 tornadoes and stronger. There are several construction types which rely on this. I think I've read that lightning does increase soil fertility in some way by adding nitrogen to the soil. That's not related to tornado-resistant construction; more info on that is at I've studied this whole are for years and know that reinforced concrete can be used in modestly-priced homes as well as bigger ones. People who lived in trailer homes have challenges affording any fixed-place home; this is another bigger problem in this country, not just for tornado victims.

    March 1, 2012 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      I'll remember thi if I ever build a home.
      This is typically done in our are by the subdivision developers, at least in my area, no matter the price of the house going up.

      March 1, 2012 at 8:39 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Need another uppa.
      Meant to say, this is typically NOT done in our AREA.

      March 1, 2012 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
    • banasy©


      Yeesh, b!

      March 1, 2012 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Well not really. Any building material "can" be engineered to with stand tornadic forces. IT all depends on cost. I will agree that reinforced concrete structures "could" withstand those forces as long as they were designed to handle that load. There are few strucutres that would hold up the a EF-4 torndao. Most hopitals which are some of the more engineered strucutres that the public has access to, would suffer large amounts of damage or be destoyed from those forces. IT all comes down to probability, risk, cost, and the design based on those factors.

      March 1, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Tia Harris

    My heart goes out to the families whom lost loved ones and to those whom's properties were destroyed by the powerful tornado that touched down in Harrisburg Ill. Unfortunately like many others have stated many structures, homes and commercial business are constructed with such cheap materials, faux brick walls,wooden frames and foundations, it can not withstand 170 mile per hour winds accompanied with fierce down pours of rain. Perhaps developers will discontinue the use of flimsy materials to build properties. And hopefully some of those owners/renters of dwellings,had some form of home insurance, to help with the cost of rebuilding. I also hope their is swift aid for those whom were in the hospital that was also hit. CNN's Soledad O'Brien and Rose Marie Arce, was excellent in covering this story. Now prayerfully, those whom are out of a house or trailer/RV or store,after their lost is assessed,restoration can begin!

    March 1, 2012 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jim

    Slight correction to the beginning of this story.... Harrisburg is SOUTHeast of St. Louis. In the story, it states "We headed into the disaster area, driving northeast from St. Louis...".

    March 1, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  7. Yvonne

    Harrisburg is a small, rural community with a per capital income of around $17,000/year. It's never been hit by a storm like this before. Danny is a good man who has been deeply and personally touched by this tragedy in ways not mentioned on CNN. People there don't live in trailers because they choose to, btw. My heart aches for the losses of those who have been affected by this tragedy and suffered losses on all levels.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  8. Yvonne

    Per capita...darned auto-correct.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  9. Lea

    Concerning the tornado: I think the year was 1939. the problem was rain and flooding. I remember my mother showing me pictures of my future uncle taoking his future wife and my mother out of a second story window into a rowboat. You can still see some of the levee and gates around town to prevent a future flood.

    March 1, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Yvonne

    The flood happened in 1937. There was a F5 that went through in 1925 between Muphysboro and Gorhum. They now say the winds were at least 180 miles per hour and possibly as much as 200 miles per hour that ripped through Harrisburg. An aerial view shows the devastation of half of the homes in the development and the path of the tornado behind them. On the other side of the street the other half of the homes in the development are still standing, though with damage.

    March 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      I wish my grandfather was still here. I remember him telling about the flood of '37, then I also remember him telling about that tornado, and it must have been '25. I'll have to ask my dad if I think of it.

      March 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Chris

    How would a reinforced concrete home stand up to an earthquake? Wasn't that part of the problem in Haiti when the earthquake struck there? Their buildings are made to withstand hurricane force winds, but they were destroyed by earthquake. Harrisburg is near the New Madrid fault line. Not to mention that much of the area has old abandoned coal mines running underneath it that are slowly collapsing with age And, of course, it floods a lot.. I'm not sure there's any perfect house, affordable or not, that balances all those factors.

    March 3, 2012 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  12. Megapril

    I think it's best to keep Soledad from doing any writing...stick to the TV camera and TelePrompTer. What a horribly written article, possibly as bad as reading a Wolf Blitzer blog post.
    On subject though, my heart goes out to everyone affected by these storms, and I am devastated by the losses you have incurred as a result. I have no doubt that you will find the will and power to make it through...

    March 3, 2012 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
  13. Jean SmilingCoyote

    Eric, I've read that many people are confident that a Monolithic Dome will withstand not just an EF4, but also an EF5 tornado. They've certainly withstood hurricanes. I'm just relating what others have said; no personal experience being in one during any storm. These people also say that you can make the concrete thicker during construction, to be stronger. This construction type has been used in a wide range of sizes, including small and affordable. I'm not advertising anything, just sharing info. Check it out yourself. It's also possible that some ICF and precast concrete construction could take an EF4, but this is a borderline rating for tornado-resistance and one must have a seriously wonky engineering discussion about thickness etc. I am not an engineer.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jane Harper

    So Harrisburg Medical Center was cheaply built because we had a gaping hole in the south side of the building? I don't think Illinois Department of Public Health, which had to approve the hospital reopening, would agree with you.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |