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Twists of grace

Six years after a tornado outbreak hit the Midwest, surviving families remember the devastation and the recovery

Firefighters survey the damage following the 2013 tornado. Steve Smedley/The Pantagraph/AP

Twists of grace
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Dan and Carol Learned were at church half an hour away when a tornado hit their Washington, Ill., neighborhood. As the congregation returned from the church basement, cell phones began to vibrate and buzz with updates from Washington. A neighborhood friend texted one of the Learned kids: “The whole street’s gone.”

The Learneds arrived at their house to find the roof torn open and every window broken. Two-by-fours stuck through holes in the walls. Their cars were destroyed. Furniture from a front room had blown into the backyard, and insulation was everywhere. “It looked like a blender had gone through the house,” says Carol.

Matt Whitworth and his family were at home when the tornado hit, and he was in the garage with his oldest son. As he tried to get into the house, strong winds threw them into the entryway, where they landed by the basement door. His wife Terri was on the floor nearby, and his youngest son lay crouched over their small family dog, protecting her from the debris. Whitworth opened the basement door and pulled his wife and sons to the stairs.

Minutes later, the tornado passed and the family returned from the basement. “It look[ed] like a bomb went off,” says Whitworth. Their immediate need was for medical attention. Their youngest son’s back was bleeding from the debris that had struck him while he was shielding the dog. The 911 line was clogged with callers, and their own cars were unusable due to damage from the storm, so Whitworth walked into the destroyed neighborhood to find another vehicle. He came across two men in a golf cart. They had come to help. One handed him keys and told him where he could find his old Ford Escort. “We’re very fortunate that … somebody came to our aid that quickly,” says Whitworth.

Matt Whitworth

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.”

Matt Whitworth

LEANING BACK in the family-room couch of his rebuilt home, Dan Learned begins to choke up as he remembers the help he and his family received from their friends. Some of them, he says, were already there when they arrived at their home the day of the tornado. Carol talks for her husband as he fights back tears, and she recalls how one friend put his arm around her and said, “Let’s go in and look together.” It was a simple act but, as Carol says, “It’s kinda like maybe at a funeral: You never know what to say, but just your presence is a big deal.”

Support from friends continued to sustain them in the difficult weeks and months that followed. Family and friends helped them find temporary housing. Neighbors joined them to sort through scattered papers and bills. Friends washed their debris-littered clothes and made them meals. Some gave them money, gift cards, and handwritten notes. Others texted and called saying they were praying for them. These contributions, the Learneds say, were helpful.

Not all help was equally helpful, though. Some well-meaning people called asking for a list of specific prayer requests. The Learneds laugh about it now, but the request was too much at the time. “I [didn’t] even have enough energy to change my clothes. I [wasn’t] going to call them back with a list,” says Dan. Some well-meaning people said unhelpful things like “at least you get a new house.” Others unaffected by the tornado saw the disaster as an opportunity to get rid of their unwanted possessions. Dan remembers one person who talked about a “bunch of junk” from his garage that he was “trying to get rid of.”

During the weeks of recovery, local churches provided necessities to families that had been affected by the tornado: food, shampoo, shoes, healthcare. Karen Frey is on staff at Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria. Her house was not damaged, but she helped collect and organize donations for the families affected by the tornado. She and the other volunteers stored these donations in an empty storefront and called it the “free Walmart.” Local families donated clothes, toiletries, and other items for tornado victims to have.

Some of the donations, Frey says, made the volunteers chuckle because they were obscure and unusable—like turpentine. But even some seemingly useful items, such as clothing, became a hassle. They collected so much clothing that they ran out of storage space. The most helpful items were cleaning products like laundry detergent. Things like this, Frey says, allowed tornado victims to care for the possessions they still had and find a sense of normalcy.

Frey says the tragedy has given her and others in their town a greater capacity to care for others. She says she looks at people differently now: “When you see people at Walmart or at a store or wherever you are, you don’t know what their story is and you don’t know what they’re going through.”

Matt Whitworth

WHILE HELPERS faced the challenge of offering the right help in the right way, people on the receiving end—like the Whitworths and the Learneds—faced the mental challenge of receiving charity. One local church provided food to homeless families in the days after the tornado, and Dan and Carol Learned remember going there for a meal. They were surprised by the fresh fruit—a luxury that demonstrated the church’s generosity. Dan felt uncomfortable accepting service, so he asked the volunteers for a nametag. He wanted to look like one of the helpers. A friend rebuked him and called him out for pride.

Dan was offended at first: “I’m like, ‘Hey, thank you. I lost my house. Our cars are destroyed. Everything’s a mess. And now you’re calling me prideful.’” But he now sees the truth of the rebuke. Dan says, “It was a very humbling thing to have someone tell [me], ‘Receive the help. Don’t keep track. Don’t try and pay everyone back. You’ll never catch up. Just receive it.’ That’s what grace is.”

Matt Whitworth also struggled with this reversal of roles. He saw himself as someone who had worked hard to get a good education and a good job so he could give of his money and resources: “[I] never really saw myself as a recipient. … I tried to be very self-sufficient.” Whitworth laughs and adds, “When a tornado happens, you’re not self-sufficient. You have to rely on other people.”

The tornado also reminded them to rely on God. The Learneds say the disaster gave them a new perspective on God’s mercy. The destruction and loss of life were terrible, yes, but had the track of the tornado shifted a couple of blocks, it could have struck church buildings and two nursing homes, where residents would have struggled to get out of harm’s way.

Matt Whitworth

God had mercy in His timing too. Flipping through the images on Dan’s laptop, the Learneds point out photos of the destruction in each of their bedrooms. In their daughter’s room, the wall and ceiling were open, and glass from the window was scattered across the room. “If it was at night and we were in those beds,” Carol says, “it would have been a different story.”

In the short term, the trauma of the event stuck with the families who lost their homes. About a year after the tornado, a friend rebuked Dan for not moving past his sorrow. Some days, he says, he could do little more than “lay in my bed in the fetal position and just cry.” But his friend reminded him that his neighborhood was being rebuilt, his family was safe, and it was time to move on. “I was so mad at him,” says Dan. “I thought, ‘How insensitive of you to say that.’ But he was dead right. … This was very hard. But it doesn’t mean we need to sit in it forever. The Lord’s mercies are new every day.”

Now, six years later, the Learneds say the raw pain of the tragedy is mostly gone. Down the street, builders recently completed a new house in a lot that had been standing empty since the tornado. The Learneds’ own house is rebuilt, and a for-sale sign sits in the yard. Now that their kids have moved out, they’re ready to move on to a smaller home. As a family, they all escaped major physical and emotional scars, but not all families were so fortunate. For some, the trauma and stress of the tornado led to divorce or premature deaths.

Even with those permanent changes, memories of the tornado have faded, and some of the neighborhood warmth that came with the teamwork of recovery is gone. The town didn’t experience a revival. But Dan Learned hopes for at least one long-term effect of the storm: “I hope we never forget what we went through as it relates to how we … love others in time of crisis.”

Leah Hickman

Leah is a reporter for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Hillsdale College graduate. Leah resides in Cleveland, Ohio.