Emotional scars of tornado yet to come home to roost in Washington, Ill.
BY MARK BROWN December 16, 2013 7:12PM
Updated: January 18, 2014 6:31AM
WASHINGTON, ILL. — The snow that fell here in recent days has smoothed over the scars on this community like bad pancake makeup covering up the handiwork of Jack the Ripper.
Under the blanket of white, the damage is only slightly less garish than it was one month ago, when a tornado ripped through the heart of this town of 15,000.
City officials estimate they’ve managed to clear away 25 to 30 percent of the debris created when a twister chewed its way through 1,100 homes on Nov. 17.
That’s a yeoman’s effort, but there’s still quite a job ahead, and now there’s all this snow in the way as well.
“The recovery doesn’t happen until this debris is gone,” said Washington Mayor Gary Manier, who has turned his part-time post into a 24/7 commitment since the day the tornado struck.
The cleanup effort was still very much in evidence Monday in neighborhoods where Caterpillar bulldozers and backhoes have taken the place of residents frantically trying to salvage their belongings.
It reminded me of growing up in another neighborhood near here when such homes were first being built and my mother warned us kids not to go anywhere near the heavy machinery because they would make “mincemeat” of us — which explains my lifetime aversion to mincemeat pie.
I gave the tractors a wide berth as I took a self-guided tour of the tornado zone, which wasn’t possible when I was last here two weeks ago because police were limiting access to residents only.
The police checkpoints have been removed, but there’s still a heavy patrol presence keeping an eye on strangers.
Most of the homes look abandoned at this point. Many have been leveled to the foundation, the demolition crews finishing off what the twister missed. The big effort now is to seal off foundations from the elements to keep them from deteriorating further until construction work can begin in the spring.
What’s left is an area without recognizable landmarks, which explains why I was interviewing Washington Ald. Mike Brownfield on the site of what used to be his home and realized only belatedly that the ramshackle house I was looking at 50 yards away belongs to my sister.
She and her husband are having it torn down next week. She says she’ll be glad when that’s done. As it is, she can’t help but drive past every time she comes through town.
While waiting to rebuild, they’re renting a town house across the river in Peoria, about 30 minutes away.
Like most of the people here, they know they’re lucky to be alive. Two people can’t say that, and the miracle remains that those were the only fatalities. But there’s a psychological toll that can’t be underestimated that is still coming home to roost.
“What a lot of people are worried about is the emotional crash that could happen after the holidays,” said Casey Taylor, associate pastor at Crossroads United Methodist Church.
The church, a hub of disaster relief activity in the first weeks following the tornado — after narrowly avoiding a direct hit itself — is back to normal now, sort of. Taylor calls it the “new normal.”
To make the new normal more normal, area churches are hoping to host a series of block parties in January to allow residents scattered by the storm across central Illinois to reunite, Taylor said.
From the start, everyone knew that one of the special challenges created by the freakish November twister was its place on the calendar — too late in the year to accommodate rebuilding. But Brownfield said he hopes to start construction in three weeks and be back in his house by August, before his son goes away to college, so he’ll know he has a safe place to return.
In the meantime, the kindness of strangers continues to make the winter warmer than it might have been.
Just before I arrived at the mayor’s office Monday, Manier opened the mail to discover a $100,000 donation from a resident of the nearby community of Morton. It was wrapped in a paper towel inside an envelope with no note. Nobody recognized the donor’s name.
A little before that, Manier had been on the phone with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who called to promise the city’s help to Washington on day one and has been good to his word.
Last week, Emanuel dispatched two financial whizzes from City Hall to help Washington draft its disaster relief application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When Manier called for follow-up guidance Monday, Emanuel provided it within the hour.
Obtaining federal financial assistance through FEMA is at the top of the priority list for Washington right now, with millions of dollars in extra expenses from the cleanup and a huge dropoff expected in tax revenue.
By next Nov. 17, I expect most of the physical scars from the tornado to be gone. The emotional ones will be another matter.