Nov. 17 marks the sixth anniversary of a devastating tornado outbreak in the Midwest. At least 73 tornadoes peppered the region on that Sunday in 2013, and the strongest one, categorized as an EF4, touched down in Washington, Ill. In less than an hour, the tornado destroyed more than 600 homes and damaged hundreds more. More than 120 people suffered injuries, and three people died.
The town of Washington today bears few visible scars from the devastation. Brand-new houses line the streets in several older neighborhoods, and the occasional lot seems to be missing a tree. Compared with the appearance of these neighborhoods minutes after the tornado—piles of debris, trees torn apart, houses gone—these sixth-year “scars” are unnoticeable.
But while the town looks as if it has moved on, memories of that traumatic day still make Washington’s residents cry. Some remember the difficulties of recovery both for those giving help and those receiving it, and their experiences offer lessons for towns facing tragedy.
Today, Whitworth sits at the kitchen table in his beautiful new home. It’s in the same location as the one that was totaled. The warm glow of the sun sifts through the red curtains on the sliding glass door to the back deck. It’s been a while since the sound of the air turning on in the house made him recall “the deafening sound of the tornado,” but he still holds back tears as he remembers the feeling of reality setting in after the storm. “You quickly start to realize … you’re not going to go home, you know,” says Whitworth. “Everything has been taken from you.”
Ben Davidson, associate pastor at Washington’s Bethany Community Church, was in a church service when phones started buzzing with the tornado warning. The Bethany congregation meets in Five Points Washington, a community center less than half a mile from the path of the tornado. The churchgoers gathered in the building’s shelter that morning, praying and singing as the lights went out and the howl of the tornado crescendoed.
Once the storm passed, the Bethany congregation acted quickly. Members went to the surrounding neighborhoods—littered with downed power lines and piles of debris, water squirting from broken pipes, and the smell of gas filling the air—and told the newly homeless to gather in the gym at the community center. “We saw people beginning to come in just with T-shirt and shorts and no shoes and their dog,” says Davidson. “That was all they had.”
Bethany members then began to make two lists: a list of homes the tornado had damaged and a list of people from the church who could house a displaced family. During the months of recovery, Bethany Community Church suspended all ministries except the Sunday morning service. The congregation used the rest of its time helping Washington residents remove debris. As other churches and community groups took on their own roles, Bethany became a hub for cleanup volunteers from across the country.
Today, Davidson says, a group from the community still meets to plan ahead for other potential disasters. They’ve designated who will organize volunteers, donations, lodging, and food in the event of another community crisis. They’ve selected a location for the first post-disaster meeting. They’ve also printed yard signs and banners to place at community checkpoints to give people information about how to help and how to get help next time something happens. However, as Davidson acknowledges, “You can never be fully prepared.”