In a small town, park district renovations and fund raisers for community groups keep reporters busy, websites alive with local news and dead tree copies moving off news stands. Until a home-crushing deadly tornado whips through — then those same community journalists embody the 24-hour news cycle practiced by industry leaders accustomed to the big stories.

In a small town, park district renovations and fund raisers for community groups keep reporters busy, websites alive with local news and dead tree copies moving off news stands.


Until a home-crushing deadly tornado whips through — then those same community journalists embody the 24-hour news cycle practiced by industry leaders accustomed to the big stories.


For Christy Stewart, a reporter with the Daily Register in Harrisburg, Ill., covering the devastating tornado that ripped through southern Illinois Wednesday morning has been challenging, terrifying and thrilling.


“It’s been unreal,” Stewart said. “Last week I was covering a jump rope competition and this week I’m covering horrible devastation.”


The difference between Stewart and the throngs of national press hounding down the ravaged streets is stark. They don’t seem to speak the language — Stewart knows many of the victims by name.


“We’re a small community,” she said. “I know most of these people. I have a connection. I can go up to them because they know who I am.”


Brian DeNeal, also a reporter with the Register, said the experience so far has been jarring.


“What surprised me the most was the mood of the first responders at the site of the apartment complex on Brady Street, where they found three bodies,” he said.


Some of the bodies were found lying on the ground, but one was trapped inside the apartment, and emergency crews couldn’t determine if the person was dead or injured.


“But (the building) was collapsed, and they couldn’t determine how to get in without risking collapse any further,” DeNeal said.


“A lot of times, when we’re out with these guys at accidents scenes, or fires, there’s sort of a ‘gallows humor’ if there’s no loss of life,” he said. “They know they’re covering an incident that will be over in an hour or two.”


But the mood at the apartment complex was unlike any DeNeal has felt after years covering accidents and other tragedies.


“There was an expression in their eyes where you know this was something beyond what any of them had seen,” he said.


With the initial shock of their ruined community behind them, DeNeal and Stewart are refocusing on what community journalists do best – digging into the marrow of local emotion, to capture the resilience and pride of a community determined to rebuild.


“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Stewart said. “People discover they can rise to the occasion when they’re confronted with a situation like this. I don’t know if you can prepare (for this type of coverage) — but you’ll surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.”