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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

Friday morning was stunningly beautiful.

The sun was bright and warm. The sky was the color blue always depicted on postcards of tropical vacation destinations. The wisp of a breeze was just cool enough to evaporate the unlikely drop of perspiration.

And, the quiet ...

For some reason the streets of Harrisburg were devoid of traffic at about 8 a.m. The heavy dew of late summer meant lawn mowers wouldn’t be running for another hour or so. In that quiet, birds roosting in the next block were clearly audible.

My wife and I jokingly refer to these perfect conditions as “A Chamber of Commerce day.”

Yet, while walking, I couldn’t shake the television images of Hurricane Florence from my mind ... the scenes of flood water rolling through streets, film of houses being ripped apart and palm trees bent at 45 degree angles.

Watching news accounts of storms has been a part of my life, since I’m early enough to remember the grainy black-and-white images narrated by Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. For most of my life, I’d watch those reports with an air of detached concern.

You could feel your heart sink a little for the people involved, but 30 seconds later your mind would segue to the next news report.

That all changed Feb. 29, 2012.

On that date my family became the subject of the storm reporting when an F-4 tornado tore through our town, our block and our house at about 5 a.m. With no basement, we sought shelter in the hallway, wrapping our arms around each other in the darkness, listening to glass breaking around us and hoping the huge oak trees in our front yard would withstand the 150-mile per hour wind.

It took less than 15 seconds for the tornado to pass. But, that quarter of a minute, when my life was in the balance, changed me.

Survival, followed by small victories for the Winkelers

Now, I cannot watch the news coverage without my throat getting tight. The sinking feeling in my heart is physical.

After that narrow escape, I hurt for the people subjected to those moments of terror — and in the case of hurricane victims, hours of terror. I know what the next days, weeks and months hold in store for the victims.

There will be frustrations ... dealing with contractors and insurance companies. There will be moments of elation — getting rid of the plywood and having actual windows installed. There will be moments of extreme humility — when complete strangers drop off food at their door or help remove debris from their yards.

And, there will be fatigue. After the tornado, it seemed we’d work 18-hour days to clean up the mess. We’d go to bed at night feeling like we’d accomplished a lot, only to get up in the morning and face the destruction all over again.

Most of all, the storm victims will feel insignificant.

On one hand, they will feel incredibly fortunate to have survived when some of their friends and neighbors did not. They will feel angry that fate placed them in the path of this horrible storm. But, time and again that feeling of insignificance and helplessness will return.

The power of Mother Nature is overwhelming. The thought of the pain and suffering occurring on the East Coast cast a pall over Friday’s perfect weather. It isn’t of much material use to the victims, but they should know that someone knows what they are going through and many of us care.

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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