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Tornado Damage May Spell the End of Tiny Towns

Marysville, Ind., a tiny farm town, has no mayor, no school and no shopping center. And after last week's deadly tornadoes, it has virtually nowhere left to live.

AP/Nam Y. Huh
MARYSVILLE, Ind. — This tiny Indiana farm town has no mayor, no school and no shopping center. And after last week's deadly tornadoes, it has virtually nowhere left to live.

Nearly every home in Marysville was destroyed or so badly damaged it will probably have to be torn down — a realization that raised an emotional question for people still gathering belongings from the debris: Is it worth rebuilding a place that has so little?

In some of the tiny communities smashed by the violent weather, the idea hangs in the air, raising doubts even among families who have lived in the same place for generations.

Before it was erased by the storm, Marysville had been a hub of farming activity in deep southern Indiana since the mid-1800s, with many sons working the same rows of corn and soybeans as their grandparents.

But as they surveyed the devastation, some townspeople concluded it would be easier to abandon the village and look for work in Louisville, Ky., 30 miles to the south.

"I think this community is pretty much gone. I don't think anyone will rebuild. A lot of people had no insurance," Scott Meadors said Sunday as he salvaged belongings from the storm's aftermath.

When a bigger population center such as Joplin, Mo., is crippled by tornadoes, there is rarely any question about rebuilding. Larger cities typically have greater resources and defined downtowns to serve as focal points. But this flyspeck village may have suffered a mortal blow.

Sean Gilbert says there's nothing to do but move away. He doubts little if anything will be rebuilt in Marysville, a town of a few hundred inhabitants that was struggling economically even before Friday's storms, which killed 40 people in five states.

"It's a shock," he said, standing beside his family's 150-year-old home, which had its siding torn away, great gashes in its roof, a caved-in front porch and metal shutters creaking eerily in the wind. The twister also destroyed the chicken house, tossed a combine on its side and tore two enormous grain silos to pieces.

One house was ground into a mound of bricks, glass and wood.

The winds also scattered farm equipment like bits of sawdust across miles of surrounding countryside. Cars were lifted and slammed back to the ground in clumps of colorful crushed metal. A semi-trailer was kicked into a tree as if it were a toy.

Marysville's younger people started to drift away from the town some time ago, pushed by tough economic times to commute to jobs closer to Louisville. The devastation left by the tornado now threatens to drive them off for good.

Gilbert, who works at a restaurant in the Louisville suburb of New Albany, is staying with a brother who already lives there. He's planning to move there permanently, though his parents are intent on staying.

"The younger generation ... they don't have as long a footing here and are more apt to move," he said. "It's a sad thing to see them move away."

Gilbert's grandfather arrived in the Marysville area from Kentucky in the mid-20th century, stepping from a boxcar along with his family and a small herd of livestock in search of a bigger farm and a better life.

"It used to be a real pretty town," said Shannon Steele as he waded into the debris around his mother's flattened home and tenderly collected a handful of colorful broaches and other jewelry. "I don't really see a lot of people rebuilding."

Steele has lived in Marysville since he was 5, back when there was still a two-room schoolhouse and a set of tracks on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line. As trains passed, a conductor would hurl a bag of mail to Steele's grandmother, who was once the postmaster.

Now the rail line is closed and the school is a community center, though the storm left it without a roof. The post office and a hardware store built in 1900 are still around, and the only other business is a tiny used car lot. Long gone is the saw mill — later a canning factory — and the general store.

Longtime residents spoke of their childhoods in loving terms, remembering the basketball games, birthday parties and barbecues.

"It was serene, like a Normal Rockwell painting," Bruce Bridgewater said.

The government of surrounding Clark County planned to help with debris removal and the restoration of infrastructure and utilities.

"Our hope is it doesn't just become a name on a map," said county Commissioner John Perkins. "We would hope that what was destroyed — and that's most of it — can be rebuilt."

Beyond that, the village's survival could depend on how much federal and state assistance trickles down to local communities.

"It'd be a terribly sad thing to see," Perkins said of the possibility that Marysville could be abandoned.

Other nearby communities risked losing population, too.

In Chelsea, home to a few churches, a general store and a collection of far-flung farms, some had decided to move on. One was Erin Boyner, whose husband, John, was among four area people killed in the storm. She felt she had nothing to return to, said friends who were helping pile and burn the scraps that used to be her home.

"She said she'd never come back. It's something she never planned on: being 30 years old and widowed," said Bruce Wilds, a family friend who had just found a few of her wedding photos in the ruins.

Her husband's body, his neck broken, was found along with those of their two dogs behind their home, which the storm lifted entirely off the foundation and left hanging in pieces from twisted trees in a deep gully. Erin Boyner, a high school teacher, survived the storm by taking shelter in the basement with students at her school.

Their neighbor, police officer Shane Caldwell had already made a deal to sell his property and move to Hanover, a larger town nearby where he works.

Even for people who have insurance, the time and money needed to rebuild a home and replace or repair expensive farm equipment makes it hard to contemplate staying, explained his brother-in-law, Ron Kroger.

Back in Marysville, Steele recalled seeing the funnel cloud roaring straight for his home. He huddled with his wife in a closet as they said their goodbyes, hugging and telling each other "I love you."

At the last minute, the tornado shifted, largely sparing his house, but blowing up his mother's like a bomb.

Still, besides the loss of property, the community also lost a sense of history.

"This house we're standing in," Steele said. "I got a picture with a horse and buggy in front of it."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

Dylan Scott is a GOVERNING staff writer.
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