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News of tornado in ‘my hometown’ knocked the air ‘right out of me’: Brown

Updated: December 20, 2013 6:36AM



WASHINGTON, Ill. — My baby sister, Mindy Taylor, was planning to host our family Christmas celebration here in another six weeks. Looks like we’ll need to go to Plan B.

The tornado that cut a path of devastation through this town of 15,000 — a town you probably had never heard of before Sunday — blew half the roof right off her house.

Nobody is going to be living there any time soon.

My sister and her family are fine. They rode out the storm under the basement steps.

The house right across the street is gone, vanished in a pile of rubble along with hundreds of other homes stretching as far as the eye can see.

Amazingly, and if you could see it for yourself then you’d know that amazing is no exaggeration, nearly all those families are OK, too. The only person known to have died here resided in a rural area some distance from the more densely populated subdivisions laid waste in the photos you’ve seen.

This is my hometown.

It’s been 40 years since I left it behind to go to college, and I’ve rarely looked back. But when the television weatherman said Washington had been hit by a tornado, the air went right out of me as if I had felt a disturbance in the force.

All my family is still in this area, as are many childhood friends who I’d only recently visited for a class reunion.

My old high school principal lived in one of those flattened homes, they tell me. My cousin’s son was in one of the damaged apartment buildings.

There’s no telling how many other people I know among the victims.

As I walked through the debris field that was once the Washington Estates neighborhood, I met a fellow whose uncle worked with me at the railroad where I’d spent my summers.

Melissa Nichols, my other sister who lives in Washington, also was unscathed. Her home is across town where there wasn’t any damage at all.

But I can tell you I shed a few tears in the hours afterward before I knew they were both in the clear.

Even after arriving here Monday, I couldn’t talk about it to anyone without choking up.

I’d try to tell somebody that my sister lived over there, and I’d point in the direction of the storm’s path across a landscape littered with cars as if from a demolition derby. But I could never quite get all the words out before the lump in my throat won out.

I came here in hopes of helping my sister and in hopes of telling you about the people who live here, because they’re going to need help long after this disaster has faded from the headlines — just like the people in Joplin and Mobile and Cedar Rapids.

They’re good people here, and they’re not so different from the people living in the Chicago area, although some of them are as eager as some of you to think otherwise.

Washington is a small farm town that through urban sprawl has become more like a suburb of Peoria, which is just across the Illinois River.

It’s a bedroom community without much industry. Most of the people work elsewhere. When I was a kid, that usually meant jobs with Caterpillar Tractor Co., makers of earthmoving equipment, which is still a major employer in the area, although not as dominant as it was.

Much of the tract housing here was built in the 1960s and ’70s and reminds me of what you find in DuPage or southern Cook towns built up at the same time.

It’s a Republican town, but people are more rabid about sports than politics.

Most of them cheer for the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball and the Chicago Bears in football, that strange central Illinois mix that I do not have time to properly explain just now.

Starting his fourth term as mayor here is Gary Manier, my teammate on the high school basketball team so many years ago. I was proud of him before this tragic event, and I know I’ll be even prouder of him by the time the town is rebuilt.

I was riding in a car with Manier, sitting between him and Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday when President Barack Obama called the governor to promise that the federal government will do everything in its power to help.

The governor passed the phone over to Manier, who I don’t think had ever imagined himself talking to the president of the United States when we were growing up — and certainly not under these circumstances.

“This isn’t something you sign up for when you become an elected official,” Manier told the president after asking him to pray for Washington.

“That’s what makes great leaders,” he said Obama told him.

Manier will need to be a great leader, because he has his work cut out for him. As he noted, winter is coming. The construction season is lost. Thousands of his residents will need to find someplace else to live this winter.

For my sister and her husband and many others, I imagine family will fill the void while waiting to see what their insurance will do.

On Monday morning, they tried to salvage some of their belongings but were ordered out of the area by authorities who said they were still assessing the damage. By late evening, they were back in there and racing the dark to bring out as much as they could.

“We’re the lucky ones,” my sister Mindy stresses.

It’s true what they say in these situations, that your health is what counts, and the “stuff” doesn’t matter.

But once that settles in, most people would like to see if they can save their stuff, too.

As I toured the destruction on foot and later in a police-led caravan, I was amazed at the upbeat attitudes and good humor among people whose worldly possessions had blown away.

This is also the kind of place where high school sports is the biggest show in town, and just the day before the tornado, the local Panthers had advanced to the semifinals of the 5A football title. From civic euphoria one day to disaster the next. Some of the players’ homes were among those wiped out.

On Monday, I found the football players helping their neighbors search through the piles of lumber, wallboard and insulation for anything of use.

On Tuesday, they will be back to practice. This small town will hope for the temporary relief that they can bring.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkBrownCST



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