By Chris Kenning, The Louisville Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It had been more than 10 weeks since a deadly tornado packing 175-mph winds destroyed Cody Gray's home, devastated his high school and left much of his small Southern Indiana town of Henryville in ruins.
But on Wednesday night, the 17-year-old stood among more than 1,000 Henryville students and town residents at a sold-out KFC Yum Center in Louisville, Ky., sharing the limelight with top country music group Lady Antebellum at a packed concert held to benefit the stricken rural community.
After everything the town went through, Cody said, the event and concert -- which raised $235,000 -- was "a huge honor -- it shows how much people care and are willing to help."
It was the Henryville school's payoff after its plight helped it win Lady Antebellum's "Own the Night" contest, which offered a prom concert to a school.
Though the Grammy-winning band couldn't make Henryville's prom, the school's 188 juniors and seniors and their dates attended a private "mini-prom" Wednesday, just before the fundraising concert that grew out of their winning contest entry.
Wearing their best ties and dresses in a high-end party room overlooking the Ohio River, the Henryville students danced to a disc jockey before being surprised by the band -- and cheering a short performance for them led by the band's singer Hillary Scott.
Lady Antebellum's members said they were struck by the students' resilience after the tragedy and were also impressed by supportive entries from other schools, including rival Silver Creek High in Sellersburg.
"Each and every one of you have inspired us," Scott told the students at the mini-prom event, during which they took requests and danced with some of the students.
Earlier in the day, the Nashville, Tenn.-based band toured the severely damaged Henryville Junior-Senior High School, which is being rebuilt and planned to reopen in August. Students are currently attending temporary schools.
Later, the trio performed before a packed crowd at the Yum Center, with proceeds benefiting the New Hope Services/Indiana Bankers Association Disaster Relief Fund. They said they were pleased that their original idea to "crash a prom" grew into something that ranked among their most meaningful shows.
Each of Henryville's juniors and seniors received five tickets for floor seating at the show. The juniors and seniors at Silver Creek, the rival Clark County school that nominated Henryville, each received one ticket.
"This is a chance for all of us to celebrate after dealing with so much adversity," said Henryville Principal Troy Albert.
Henryville suffered intense damage in the March 2 tornadoes, which destroyed hundreds of homes in Southern Indiana and Kentucky and killed 35 people in the two states.
Today, the recovery is only beginning, as construction workers could be seen around town raising wood frames, pouring concrete for foundations and hammering bare siding.
Plenty are still struggling to get insurance claims paid across counties in Southern Indiana, said Monroe Township Trustee Allen Bottorff, who attended the concert with his two children. Many residents are still doubled up in relatives' homes or in motels, he said. And for the 40 percent to 50 percent of residents without insurance, recovery is more distant, particularly for those who don't qualify for government loans.
Officials say summer is likely to bring a new influx of volunteers to Henryville, still numbering 60 a day through the town's volunteer center, which will speed construction and rebuilding -- if enough housing can be found for them.
But Wednesday night, all that was forgotten, as students and school staff were besieged by TV cameras and rubbing elbows with the stars.
"It's unbelievable that they'd do this for us," said 18-year-old senior Kristi Powers.
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