November 17, 2013, a day like any other. It was just a plain old Sunday morning. A regular, unremarkable, pleasant, Sunday morning. Our high school football team had defeated Normal U-High in the quarter final play-off games Saturday afternoon and we were looking forward to having a team in the semi-final round for the first time since 1985! GO PANTHERS! The Hubs and I watched Charles Osgood on CBS’s Sunday Morning, as we always do. The entire show is dedicated to the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
We switch to more mundane television. We work on projects and the kids working on homework. I am finishing up a Madrigal suit I’m sewing for the High School, The Man is helping by putting grommets on the doublet for the costume. I was at the ironing board pressing the hem and waist band into the knickers. The weather forecasters had, for days, been calling for some unusual weather patterns for this time of year, harkening us all to be alert and aware of our surroundings so we put the police scanner on in the back ground. Late in the morning we are alerted that a tornado warning had been issued. This is the moment when the easy pace of the day picked up speed. From this moment we would begin thinking of life in terms of before and after.
In seconds officers are hearing officers being dispersed throughout the city to begin the watch. A call goes out to all ESDA spotters to take up their positions. An officer radios into the dispatch, wondering why he isn’t hearing the sirens. Dispatch say’s she’s trying but can’t get them to start. Quickly pick up the scanner, water bottles, batteries, our cell phones, ID’s and pets and head down stairs to the basement. The Man scoffs at my preparedness, as always, but I keep barking orders and getting the troops moving. In fact, he keeps going upstairs for things like the TV and chairs. He isn’t worried, but the rest of us are.
The power is flickering and we only get glimpses of the panic-stricken faces of the newscasters as they urge everyone to take cover and it is clear that the station is taking a hit. We turn our attention back to the scanner as it continues to inform us of what was unfolding outside our home, in the community we call home.
A spotter confirms funnel on the ground at East Peoria Conference center. I post this information on facebook via the Man’s phone in hopes that friends might see it and realize this one was close and serious. “It’s on the ground crossing Muller Rd. in Washington.” THAT’S really close! You can hear the officers try to push down the panic in their voices as they rapidly call out the locations “It’s coming right at me!” McDonald’s is mentioned. “It’s behind 5-points!”(about a mile and a half from our house.) The power gives out once and for all. We hold hands and continue to listen as they list off landmarks and road names, names we know, names of places where our friends live, where our kids friends live. I see the worry in their faces as I try to keep my calm for their sake.
We hear the streets of Westminster and Wellington mentioned. “The houses are gone!” The girl’s best friend lives on Wellington and I see the fear flash in her eyes as she tries to process what it means.
“Jess?” I say. She nods and I try to find comforting words, but they sound hollow as they fall on my own ears. I can’t do a thing but hold her hand and wait to hear what is next.
We sit and listen some more. We hear that roar, the signature roar of a train that you hear everyone talk about, then everything is still. The only thing to hear is the very lonely sound of the siren. Eerie doesn’t even begin to describe it, then on the south side of the house the sounds of what? Torrents of rain? Hail? Debris?
The officers are now calling for more units. “We need neighboring units, East Peoria, Morton, Metamora! We need ESDA and the State Police!” the words came in a short staccato. Dispatch reports they have no phone lines out and cell is not available either. Sitting there in the dark basement I don’t have to imagine what horrors they are seeing. The tremor in their voices are giving them away. They can’t believe what they have just seen themselves. They are in shock, but they don’t have time to dwell on it. Something awful has unfolded right there before them in these last few minutes and it is their job to deal with it. God bless them.
We determine it is now safe, so we cautiously come upstairs and go outside to see if we have damage. Remarkably nothing amiss around home, but the ominous black clouds that were tearing though the nearby neighborhood are hanging in the sky, standing out in stark contrast with the lighter skies over our heads. The air fills with the sounds of sirens, the call of the officers as they begin the staging and search and rescue. One officer on the scanner says he’s headed to check on his family. The realization hits that some of the heroes are likely also victims. Reality.
This is where time starts get’s messed up in our minds. Only 15 minutes or so have passed so far, but already it seems like a distant memory of days ago. Our neighbors come out of their homes, checking on each other. Some have already gone to the devastated areas, trying to help dig and move debris and pull people out of their homes. We hear their reports, “Devonshire Estates is gone. Leveled.” How can this be? It doesn’t make sense.
Our children’s friends, those who gather around my table and laugh and eat and play games on any given day after school lets out, begin to show up. I see their eyes, some are scared, worried, concerned and they are holding back tears. They want to get home but roads are blocked. One of them lives with his grandparents way outside of town. He tells us their house is gone. He doesn’t know where his grandparents are exactly, but he knows they were not there at the time. All I can do is hug them and tell them it’s OK, but again, my words seem empty to me.
They have a home here for now. They are safe and will stay for as long as is necessary. They start talking about what they have heard and what they have seen. It takes a bit, but they even start joking a little bit and laughing…relaxing. One young man, who was working at a Lindy’s when the tornado hit, brings his Ukulele and begins to play. From there, their minds turn to what will happen with the high school’s musical they were supposed to open on Wed? Will there even be school tomorrow? Text messages go to and fro among them and their friends, when reception is good enough that they can get a message to send.
It seems later than it is at this point, but whatever the time, I decide it’s time for a meal. What have I got? Hot dogs, lunch meat, cheese and chips. It’s not much but it’s a meal! While I get that out I am already thinking about later. I know I will not have power any time soon so cooking on the stove is not possible as we have an electric shut off for the gas. What to do.
I have stew meat in the fridge for the stew I had intended to make for dinner that night. I’ve got my cast iron Dutch oven and I’ve got a propane grill. I can do this! While The Hubs starts grilling hotdogs, I work to put together the stew. As I cook I’m thinking ahead to the next step and the next step, working it all out in my head what we will do for heat, for lights, for these kids, for my family. The process of cooking works to quiet my nerves and helps me feel I have control of the situation, at least right here inside my home. Once the hot dogs are done, I put the cast iron pot on the grill and close the lid. It should be done by dinner time. What time is it anyway? I look at the clock, not even an hour has passed.
I coax the kids toward the food, an unusual thing to have to do, but they eventually come and eat and continue to talk. Healing begins. There is a little more laughter, more Ukulele and singing but I can easily see that their attention is also on the radio and the scanner. I want to turn them off, but the need for information is greater. We need to know what is happening. Knowledge is power, right?
The information we receive paints a picture of a much larger swath of destruction. More people we know in that path. The Man goes to check again on the neighbors to see if they need anything. I step outside to see if I can send another text message to my son or my family outside of town to let them know how we are doing. The sirens are still wailing. Life flight has flown over head. There are other helicopters in the air. The stew smells good.
We hear police officers calling to each other over the radio. “Where are you?” “I’m getting my family out and loading them up to head out of town. I’ll be there soon,” is the reply. My heart breaks, but I can’t show it. I must remain strong for the kids’ sake. I must keep the mood light.
By 4:00 we’re under Martial Law, a boil order, curfew has been established; roads into the city are being shut down. No one in or out as our young friend finds out when he makes another attempt to get to his family. Another of the boys finally gets home safely. I wish I could rest easy but The Man has decided to go to Peoria to the shop where he works to borrow a generator and I fear he will not be allowed to come back into town.
In the mean time, cell access is getting better. I’ve posted to facebook that we are OK, but I’ve not been able to give or get much more information. Now I’m able to send and receive texts and post to facebook and check facebook for those familiar names. A peppering of posts reveals one, two, three friends are OK and have little or no damage, then come 2 or three more posts or texts revealing other friends have lost everything. This scenario will continue to play out over and over again. A roller coaster of emotions overcomes me, and because I’m alone in the van charging the phone I give into the emotions and sob. My heart is breaking for everyone who is going through this nightmare.
Pictures begin to surface. I don’t want to look at them, and yet I have to see if it’s as bad as I think it is. Pictures of neighborhoods I KNOW, places I’ve been many times, places I’ve dropped my kids for play dates, areas where my 4-H families live and areas near the schools my kids attended. I can’t recognize a single thing. I don’t know where anything is. I can’t find a landmark to orient myself to the scene, yet I look out my own front door and nothing has changed at all. Still, I know that everything has changed and all at once. I can’t make sense of it all. Remarkably all of the schools in our fair town are still standing though some have minor damage.
It’s getting darker, the stew is done. I bring it in off the grill and get the call from The Man. As I had feared, he has been denied entrance to town and is going to park the truck and trailer at a friend’s house just outside of town and walk in. I resolve myself to working through the night on my own with a house full of kids as I don’t think he’ll get by on foot either. I joke that he’s going to get himself tased for trying to sneak in to town.
The kids have brought out a board game and stop to dish up some stew. I look outside and see headlights on the house across the street. He made it! The man has pulled in the drive generator and all and he’s here! He tells us that as he turned to go to our friend’s house, the cops all got in their cars and drove off in a hurry, so he turned around and let himself into town! Yea!
The boys go out to help hook up the generator and by the time they are done, the stew is cold, but we are thankful for it. It’s 5:40 now and curfew starts at 6 so we resign ourselves to settle in and wait this out together, with board games and snacks.
I startle every time the flashing lights of the squad car rolls through our neighborhood, tricking my mind into thinking it is lightening. When someone walks in front of a flash light I think the electricity is going to go out. Absurd, as there is no electricity to go out.
Schools cancel classes through Wednesday and there is a guarded reaction of joy, a few cracks about tornado day that quickly give way to wondering about what classmates and teachers are without homes tonight and where they are.
We play our game and try to relax. More games by flashlight, some ukulele playing and singing and silliness and laughter, this is starting to look like a familiar scene. More texts and phone calls and posts reveal more people safe, more people homeless. As darkness settles in, we hear reports of media arriving and trying to get into the “effected zone”. We’re learning a new language now: Marshall Law, Effected Zone, Staging area, triage… The voices of the police officers and fire fighters reflect their mental and physical fatigue. We hear of CBS and Good Morning America are arriving and questions arise as to where to send them. At this point is seems a bit ridiculous that our emergency workers have to deal with this sort of problem.
Our group talks about how quickly “fame” has fallen upon our small town. My oldest relays that he just heard a radio report about us on the BBC network. We’re global now. The general consensus is that they should leave us be, but we’ve seen too much of this sort of thing from the outside to know that to be left alone is just a pipe dream. Now that we’re in the middle of it, we realize that we will never look at another disaster anywhere else in the world in the same way as we did before. Sympathy gives way to empathy.
It seems at this point that we’ve been at this for days, but in reality it’s only 8:40.
More singing and a rousing round of Laverne and Shirley’s board game and some of our group retires for the night. The Man and I plan to “sleep” downstairs in the big chairs to babysit the generator. The boys decide to sleep on the couch and living room floor. We turn off the lights at about 11:50 but the sleep will have to wait as the boys get chattier than tween girls at a slumber party. Healing, I remind myself that they are healing.
When we finally get to it, sleep is fitful, at best. At 4 a.m. I finally accept the fact that my brain is up and so am I. I listen to the purring of the generator that has kept our bodies warm and our refrigerator and freezer cold and I am thankful.
As turn my ear to the room I am in, I hear the varied breathing patterns of its occupants. Of course my first thoughts turn to what I am going to feed them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Will I have to feed them dinner? Maybe things will be better by then. Deep down I know that things will not be better for a long while.
My oldest, my Aspie, is the first to join me in the pre-dawn hours. He’s a creature of habit and get’s up at 5 a.m. no matter the situation. We both sit quietly. I return to my thoughts. What will happen today? Do we have enough gas to keep the generator running? Will they lift the ban on people coming and going so The Man can get more gas if we need it? WHERE can we get gas? Not here in town and as of nightfall, surrounding towns were already running out. I realize these are all small things compared to what others are going through. We will do whatever we have to do. I’m praying to keep busy to keep my mind quiet.
Around 7 everyone is waking. I put out cereal and Clif Bars and point them in the right direction, but no one is hungry. Two semi-trucks full of rail car wheels rolls by our house to the rail yard at the end of our street and we all realize it is Monday and for some in this world, life goes on as scheduled. A UPS truck rolls by further confirming that some people are not affected by what has happened here. It’s an odd feeling. Something tells me that the coming days are going to be long and strange.
A check of facebook provides conflicting stories on whether they are letting people in or out of town. We click on the scanner again to hear them talk of escorting press people to the staging area. The governor is coming today to survey the damages. NWS is coming to assess the damages and give us an idea of the EF rating of our tornado. We will later find out that the preliminary findings give us an EF 4 which is 166-200 MPH winds. They believe ours had winds up to 190. It traveled at 65 MPH and was on the ground for 45.2 miles over 4 counties and was ½ a mile wide. I’m not sure what to do with this information.
Our young friend who lost his home leaves and manages to reunite with family. He will have a place to sleep tonight. I am grateful.
The Man gets word that we are not expected to have electricity until about 10 p.m.. He decides to drive to a nearby town to get gas, but stops at the check point before he goes to find out if he can get back in. He’s so smart. He is told he can return and so he goes to Goodfield to get us gas for the generator, propane for the grill.
It’s really hard, at this point to know what to do with our day. I get meat out to thaw for dinner, but there’s just not much more that can be done without electricity.
When the Man get’s home with gas, propane and a surprise of Subway Sandwiches! We decide to plug in the TV to see what will happen at this big press conference they have planned. I don’t think any of us are ready for the pictures we see. It is different somehow when they are in video format, more real. They are in an area of town we’ve not yet seen on facebook. We know that road, we know the parking lot they are set up in, but where is the Advance Auto Parts store? Where are the trees? Who lived in that house that is only half there now? I don’t even remember a house being there before. I finally figure out that I don’t remember the house because there used to be a fence and large trees between it and the parking lot I’m viewing it from.
We listen now to the governor tell the press, and the rest of us, that they are here to support our community and that everything will be fine. Whether it’s fatigue or stress, I do not know, but a wave of skepticism washes over me. All morning long we have listened as the police have been escorting press from the edges of town to where this press conference is taking place or to tour the effected zones and all morning we couldn’t help but think how the presence of these visitors was keeping our emergency teams from more important work, but the story must get out, right? It all rubs me the wrong way. We simply can’t watch any more coverage and click the set off. It’s too much to see all of the destruction.
We’ve now passed the 24 hour mark. Around 1:30 we receive word that the power is back on. We are thrilled, but we are also tired, and we don’t know what to do anymore. Sleep is what I want, but the voices in my head won’t allow it. I have much to say, much to wonder about and I just don’t know what to do with all of the feelings my unquiet brain is bringing up. I take a shower then sit down to write it all down.
Evening comes and I peruse facebook again on The Man’s phone. I see signs of hope. Our football team, our 12 and 0, perfect record, football team, WILL be playing in the semi-final games, in spite of the fact that 8 players and 1 assistant coach have lost everything. Illinois State University is lending us their field for practice in the next 2 days. Normal U-High, in a complete example of grace in action, will provide lunch for our team during those days and Sacred Heart-Griffin, the team we are playing will send 2 charter buses for fans. They will feed our fans after the game and they will feed our team before and after. I can’t stop the tears from flowing now.
Everyone asks what it is they can do for our town. Right now the people of this town need 2 things: Prayers and financial help. Donations to the Red Cross designated to the Washington, IL tornado relief will come here and do the most good where it needs to be done, providing what the displaced families need, when they need it. Several area churches and schools have opened up to provide hot food, a warm place to be and toiletries, water and the like. Teams of people are beginning to clean up the debris from the fields surrounding our towns, hopefully they will recover precious lost items that can be returned to families. I realize at this point that more and more good things are going to happen. Things are going to be all right. It will just take time. Washington takes care of its people.
Tomorrow is a new day. The Man will return to work. The Girl has no school for the next two days. The Boy has a night class but the curfew will keep him from attending. There is no real certainty in what tomorrow will bring, there never really is. But tomorrow will come and we will go about our business, whatever that is. I think we are all just hoping to put another foot forward, taking another step toward a normal, regular, unremarkable day. My family will remain thankful for the blessing of being spared, prayerful for the families that weren’t, vigilant for ways to help and hopeful for the future of our sweet, little town. It won’t happen soon, but it will happen. This is our life after the tornado.