‘We are stronger’: Tornado-stricken Illinois towns Ottawa, Naplate 1 year later

OTTAWA, Ill. -- When you look around Ottawa, it's almost like it didn't happen -- almost.

But upon closer inspection, there are tell tale signs that an EF-3 tornado, packing winds up to 165 miles per hour and baseball-sized hail, passed through the area just a year ago.

That night, with the electricity cut off, it was still plain to see. Ottawa Fire Chief Steve Haywood said it was like maneuvering through a mine field.

"We had to walk mostly everywhere. We had trees and power lines down everywhere," Haywood said.

Neighboring Naplate, a town of only several hundred, was hit hard, too. Eighteen buildings, including a nursing home, were destroyed and dozens more were damaged.

Back in Ottawa, two people died -- 32-year-old David Johnson and his father-in-law Wayne Tuntland died from a falling tree. Johnson's husband Toby was hurt but survived when David, in his last act, pushed him out of the way.

But like a Phoenix, there comes a rebirth from the ashes.

At mom-and-pop-owned New Chalet restaurant, one of 500 properties to sustain some sort of tornado damage, Cheryl and Dave Park say the ordeal was physically and emotionally devastating. First came the clean up, and then the unknown of when they could reopen.

"Oh many tears, and then not knowing how long it was going to take," Cheryl Park said. "It was scary."

But through an unconquerable spirit, the restaurant was back in business.

"We are stronger people because of this," David Park said. "You survive this, you can probably survive anything."

In the nights and the days that followed, people from all walks of life -- first responders, utility crews and thousands of volunteers -- banded together to begin the rebuilding process.

WGN recently caught up with the Menonite Disaster Service who was rebuilding a home -- the labor free, the materials donated.

"You have to have compassion. It's part of our religious heritage we go out and help others," said Doug Goertzen, Mennonite Disaster Service. "It makes us feel great that we are able to give back and help others. This is all volunteer. We ask nothing in return."

As the rebuild continues, it is not without re-growing pains. Today's codes are stricter than when these homes and businesses were first built decades ago.

"You have to put hurricane clips on, and you have to do all that, and the insurance agents would come up to me and say, 'You are going to make them do all of that?' I said, 'Absolutely.' Well they'd say they don't have code upgrade insurance, and I would be like, I'm sorry we have to do this,'" said Mike Sutfin, head of building and zoning in Ottawa.

Ottawa and Naplate did not receive any county, state or federal disaster relief funds. So people who were uninsured or underinsured were the beneficiaries of money donated privately.

What happened here on the last day of Feb. 2017 will be a part of history forever and always, but in a fire to steel kind of way, the people here have emerged stronger than ever believes Ottawa Mayor Bob Eschbach.

"I like to say that Mother Nature can be cruel, but in this whole process, we found out how good human nature can be," he said.