In Illinois, A Town That's Half-Destroyed But Filled With Hope

Washington, Ill., is full of both optimistic signs and lots of construction crews as the town rebuilds after a half-mile-wide tornado devastated the area in November. i i

Washington, Ill., is full of both optimistic signs and lots of construction crews as the town rebuilds after a half-mile-wide tornado devastated the area in November. Alan Greenblatt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alan Greenblatt/NPR
Washington, Ill., is full of both optimistic signs and lots of construction crews as the town rebuilds after a half-mile-wide tornado devastated the area in November.

Washington, Ill., is full of both optimistic signs and lots of construction crews as the town rebuilds after a half-mile-wide tornado devastated the area in November.

Alan Greenblatt/NPR

Washington is just starting to rebuild.

Much of the central Illinois town was wiped away by a half-mile-wide tornado in November. In all, 1,108 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable — a huge share of the housing stock in a city of 15,000.

"Early on, people were asking me how long it was going to take to rebuild the city, and I said we'll do it in a year," says Mayor Gary Manier. "That was wishful thinking."

Tornadoes typically strike the Midwest during the spring. This one touched down not long before Thanksgiving, meaning Washington lost its chance to rebuild quickly due to an unusually bitter and persistent winter.

Now, multiple home sites on some blocks are busy with workers putting up frames or nailing in walls. But building permits have yet to be pulled for more than half the affected properties.

The city last week sent homeowners a notice that they need to decide whether to rebuild, or tear down.

Debris still litters the yards in neighborhood subdivisions. City officials plan to clear this gully ahead of any spring floods. i i

Debris still litters the yards in neighborhood subdivisions. City officials plan to clear this gully ahead of any spring floods. Alan Greenblatt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alan Greenblatt/NPR
Debris still litters the yards in neighborhood subdivisions. City officials plan to clear this gully ahead of any spring floods.

Debris still litters the yards in neighborhood subdivisions. City officials plan to clear this gully ahead of any spring floods.

Alan Greenblatt/NPR

"All these brand-new structures coming out of the ground, all that smell of sawdust and new lumber is great," Manier says, "but the yards are still full of debris, glass and porcelain and nails and steel."

What People Have Lost

Lorelei Cox stands next to a big pile of dirt where her yard used to be. Surveying her neighborhood, she says she's pleased it doesn't look like a "war zone" anymore.

"I see hope," Cox says. "Everywhere I look, I see hope."

Her next-door neighbor's foundation stayed intact, so already the frame of a new house has gone up. Cox's own home, custom-built in 1991, was totally blown away.

The replacement structure has basement walls, but no basement yet. She hopes to be able to move in by August.

Immediately after the storm, she shared her joy with NPR's David Schaper when her family found some jewelry at the site. Since then, making an inventory of all that's lost for insurance purposes has been a "monumental task," she says, and a wrenching one.

"Every time you think of something, it reminds you of something else, and that kind of rips at your gut a little," Cox says. "I miss the things that were familiar, as mundane as a cup I always chose first to have my coffee in, and my own bed."

Cox also misses her neighbors. Most will come back, but for now they're all scattered.

The Local Building Boom

Devastated subdivisions such as Devonshire Estates and Timber Creek are filled with contractors and their trucks, but everyone's yard is still a torn-up mess, filled with bits of tar and insulation and glass.

Lorelei Cox stands where her yard used to be. Having faced a tornado and a "relentless" winter, Cox says, "You just pick yourself up and keep going." i i

Lorelei Cox stands where her yard used to be. Having faced a tornado and a "relentless" winter, Cox says, "You just pick yourself up and keep going." Alan Greenblatt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alan Greenblatt/NPR
Lorelei Cox stands where her yard used to be. Having faced a tornado and a "relentless" winter, Cox says, "You just pick yourself up and keep going."

Lorelei Cox stands where her yard used to be. Having faced a tornado and a "relentless" winter, Cox says, "You just pick yourself up and keep going."

Alan Greenblatt/NPR

"It's going to take a few years to be finished, I think," says Juan Villanueva, part of a crew putting up walls for a house on Kingsbury Road.

People in Washington talk about their frustration dealing with insurance companies. It turns out you get checks cut a lot faster if your home is a total wreck than if insurers believe there's hope of rebuilding. They also have to take care to protect against the type of fraud that is endemic following a disaster.

"We've got a lot of great home builders," says Roger Hickman, a local agent for State Farm, which covers about 500 of the ruined homes in Washington. "We're in short supply of great home repairers."

With so many homes starting to go up at once, further delays are inevitable, as people wait for skilled electricians and carpet layers and the like.

"We're going to be busy all year long," says Pat Weishaupt, an electrician and general contractor. "It's a bad way to get busy."

'We Live Here Now'

Many Washingtonians have been living in rental properties throughout the greater Peoria area over the past five months. The schools are running extra bus routes to a dozen different communities to accommodate scattered kids.

"Residents in my district lost 293 homes, and 127 students were displaced," says John Tignor, superintendent of one of the two elementary districts. "We have 17 staff members who lost their homes" — including Tignor himself.

Building permits have been pulled to replace nearly half the wrecked homes in Washington. i i

Building permits have been pulled to replace nearly half the wrecked homes in Washington. Alan Greenblatt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alan Greenblatt/NPR
Building permits have been pulled to replace nearly half the wrecked homes in Washington.

Building permits have been pulled to replace nearly half the wrecked homes in Washington.

Alan Greenblatt/NPR

Despite the epic disruption, school enrollment citywide is up by six students since the storm. Everyone seems to want to stay in Washington. People who once felt only loosely connected to the community now say they're deeply rooted, bonded by equally shared senses of loss and hope.

The town has decided to change the name of its summer festival to Washington Good Neighbor Days. People are heartened by the dozens of volunteers from other communities who continue to show up every weekend.

The tornado stayed on the ground for 46 miles, but the official death toll was only one. Two other people died from conditions exacerbated by storm-related injuries.

"Everybody, to a person, says we have each other — mom, dad, cat, whatever," says Manier. "All the other stuff is stuff. If money can buy it, it can be replaced."

Laura Allaman has only lived in Washington six years, but she and her family refused to accept temporary housing anywhere else but in town, as they wait for their own home to be rebuilt.

"We live here now," says Allaman, a school librarian. "We need to be here. It's family, with everybody helping. We're here forever."

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