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Ottawa, Naplate tornado relief presses on despite heavy price tag and no state,federal aid

Naplate mayor says state "wasn't there" when needed

LASALLE COUNTY - More than nine months after a deadly tornado ripped through parts of LaSalle County, residents continue to see challenges in the rebuilding process and depend on private donations to move forward.

On February 28, 2017, an EF-3 tornado hit, killing two people and damaging hundreds of homes and structures in Ottawa and the nearby village of Naplate. The storm also forced the evacuation and temporary closing of the LaSalle County Nursing Home for several months.

The nursing home has since reopened, but for many residents and members of the community -- there is still much work to be done.

"A lot of people who were not well enough insured, they've sustained so much damage that they've maxed out their insurance policies," said Mike Sutfin, Ottawa's building and zoning official. "So a lot has come out of their pockets." 

According to Sutfin, the city of Ottawa sustained up to $39 million in damages. Many nearby homes remain without repairs, as there are not enough local repairmen to fix over 1,100 permit requests. Sutfin says he's still fielding permit requests as of this week.

"There's so much hidden damage you don't see until you go inside," he said. 

Sutfin is one of only two full-time city employees handling permits, along with two part-time employees. His team is worried about the upcoming winter season and what it could mean for people who still have yet to repair their homes.

"They're not going to survive during the winter and be cost effective to repair. It won't happen. It's far greater than we initially thought," Sutfin said. "You look at this and it doesn't look like a lot. But when you start tabbing it up and it comes to $39 million -- that's a lot." 

Despite the estimated damage, Ottawa nor Naplate received federal or state aid. On March 1, 2017 -- the day after the storm -- Governor Bruce Rauner and IEMA officials surveyed the devastation of both communities and declared them disaster areas. Back then, Rauner called for insurance companies to help.

"Please come quickly and help these families recover," Rauner said that day.

However, Naplate mayor Jim Rick says the community never received any state or federal aid. Both communities have depended on private donations. The most recent estimate for the Ottawa/Naplate Disaster Recovery Fund had reached more than $300,000.

"You depend on your state for help when you need it, and we needed it. And they weren't there," said Rick. "But with the community we have here -- it was a rough six months. It's still rough. But things are coming around and that's the community we are."

The small village of Naplate arguably suffered the worst devastation of the two communities. According to Rick, roughly 85 percent of damaged homes have received at least some form of repairs. More than a dozen structures were torn down, including St. Mary's Catholic Church -- a staple in the community -- last week.

Sutfin figured the communities would not receive state aid shortly after assessing the damage. He knew the city's damage estimate met the mandatory financial threshold for aid, but says Ottawa does not have the percentage of uninsured citizens to meet the current requirements. Naplate, with only a few hundred residents, did not reach the financial threshold.

Mayor Rick says he's floored by the private support for the community, but says the fund currently sits at about $50,000 -- not enough to complete all of the remaining projects. He says the community is still open to donations. 

Of the bright spots for locals  --- many are hopeful that the Pilkington Glass Factory, the largest employer for either community, will return to full operations soon.

"I said it back then the people down here are resilient," said Rick. "And I knew we'd come back. I'm surprised we are this far -- and we could always be a little farther. And there's always next year." 

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