A year ago, one of the strongest tornadoes on earth leveled sections of Washington, Illinois. WGN-TV Reporter Sean Lewis returns to this area near Peoria to find much new construction, and a community that’s grown closer.
On the ground devastated one year ago, a new Washington is being built. “This is where we were, right here.” Andrea Marfell’s family is still rebuilding, just a few weeks now until they’re back in their home. Andrea snapped a cellphone photo of herself and the kids huddled in the basement, under the stairs. It’s a frightening reminder of the November 17th tornado which destroyed their home, and nearly took a member of their family. “I heard his feet on the wood floor, his nails, clicking.” Their 12 year old beagle, Charlie, “I was like I forgot my dog upstairs.” A chair next to a missing wall is the last place Andrea saw Charlie before she had to take cover with the kids. "I didn’t realize he wasn’t with us until he started barking, like right when it started happening and the windows started breaking.. and everything and then he stopped barking.” But, it didn’t take long (Charlie comes out of his carrier) to know that Charlie had weathered the storm. “He made it. I don’t know where he went or what we saw when he was up here but he was okay.”
Across town, Pastor Daniel Bennett from Bethany Community Church says, ““People were coming in here. We set things up in the gym.” He was just about to begin his service that Sunday morning at the Five Points Community Center, when the tornado warning was issued. “What happened on the cell phones? They were getting text alerts. My wife was sitting in the service and she got an alert, so she went ahead and got up before they shut down the service.” His congregation, and others, became Ground Zero for the thousands of volunteers who came to help these last 12 months, in this small town just outside of Peoria. “We have, by God’s grace, just been a place where volunteers have been able to come in our community. We’ve always loved our community. We’ve always loved Washington and the surrounding communities and the people we minister to.
But there was an ability we had to demonstrate our love for people in a way we hadn’t before.” Not only did the tornado lay waste to 1,108 homes of the 10,000 here, more than 4,000 trees were torn from the earth a year ago. A team of volunteers from nearby Caterpillar Corporation is now working to replace them. Mike Watson is a self taught arborist. “We’re planting over 20 varieities of trees so it’ll be a diverse urban forest that grows and prospers.” Another group places signs, welcoming each family home. Washington Mayor Gary Manier is proud. “It’s actually starting to surprise me how far we’ve come and gotten to this point.” He says more than 800 permits are now issued with more to come, remarkable with the amount of devastation and the horrible winter which delayed construction for months. “To celebrate where we’re at today is incredible, one year later. I’m excited and encouraged.” From the Mayor, to the volunteers, and all the survivors of that freak November tornado, this is a community changed. “It’s brought our community much closer together,” says Pastor Bennett. A closeness of community that only came when nature did her best to tear it apart. “Our community’s responded in a way that you dream a community would respond.”
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Mike D'Angelo contributed to this report.