By Blake Baxter
As most of you know by now, this past weekend the Midwest was rocked by a slew of deadly and destructive tornados. What you may not be aware of, though, is that one of the places that was hit the hardest, Washington, IL, is a neighboring city of the towns where Brent and I reside (Goodfield, IL and Eureka, IL, respectively). My mother has proudly worked for the City of Washington for 19 years. I worked at a golf course in Washington during high school and part of college. I have played sports, gone out to eat and ran errands to Washington thousands of times throughout my life. In fact, I went to Washington for a routine oil change on Saturday and drove by places that were decimated less than 24 hours later.
On Sunday, November 17, at least 16 tornados touched down and ravaged various communities across the Midwest, according to the National Weather Service. In northern Illinois, Coal City, Manhattan and Frankfort were hit by three EF-2 tornados. In Iroquois County, four tornados, EF-1 or weaker touched down. An EF-3 hit Pekin. An EF-3 hit Gifford, which is near Rantoul. Fifty miles southwest of St. Louis, two people were killed in a farmhouse by an EF-4. An EF-3 killed three people and injured over a dozen others in Brookport. Four others touched down in other southern Illinois towns. In total, 13 different counties have been named disaster areas by Governor Pat Quinn.
But as previously mentioned, Washington was a town that suffered among the most unimaginable losses. It was struck by an EF-4, which had winds of 190 miles per hour. Its path, easily recognizable from an aerial view, was longer than 46 miles. It flattened neighborhood after neighborhood, destroyed local businesses, injured over 100 people and took one man’s life. There is an estimated 1,000 homes that were damaged in some way of which 400 were destroyed completely. The pictures of the destruction are devastating. The videos of the storm are remarkable and frightening. The stories, such as the six-year old boy who saved his family’s lives, the man who found his dog alive 30 hours after huddling with his family in his basement as his house was demolished above him or the man who survived after being sucked up into the tornado and thrown atop a pile of blocks – a pile of blocks, which had buried his family, range from heartwarming to mystifying. From the looks of the damage, it was nothing short of miraculous that more lives weren’t lost.
To see any place in the condition that Washington is in today is incredibly heartbreaking, but to see one so close to home, both literally and figuratively, is particularly harrowing. I, along with countless people I know, have friends, family, and acquaintances that live in Washington and many of them lost their homes or were profoundly affected. Just like that, a place that we all knew so well took on the appearance of a dilapidated war zone. But I am happy to report, just mere days since it all occurred, the community has come together to lend a helping hand and rebuild.
Since the news broke, seemingly everyone – from all walks of life – has found ways to support the people of the city in such a trying time. On Saturday, the town’s high school football team defeated University High School to advance to the state semifinals to face the Sacred Heart Griffin Cyclones (weird, right?). Both schools are reaching out to the community. Both schools raised money for charter buses for the fans, many of which lost their vehicles. U-High allowed their team to practice at their field and fed them dinner. Sacred Heart Griffin pulled money together from the team and their football family to feed the team and the fans at the game this weekend, and is giving any money not spent to Washington High School.
At Eureka College, students rallied to convince the administration to open its unused dormitories for displaced victims of the storm. Unbeknownst to them the administration already had plans in the works; it worked with the Red Cross to make their wishes a reality. ICC is also opening their doors to the victims. Bradley University has organized a fundraiser. Food drives, water drives, clothing drives and every kind of drive that you can imagine have been set up across the state. District 140 (Eureka, Congerville, Goodfield) has set up a fund to assist the teachers affected and has already raised over
$15,000 $17,000 $18,000.
Inside Washington, the Crossroads Methodist Church, Washington High School and the Evangelical Methodist Church were transformed into shelters for displaced families. The shelters requested donations for “anything you would need in a hotel room” to be dropped off at Countryside Banquet Facility or Dozer Park in Peoria. Within two days, Countryside was already completely full with donations from people far and wide.
Calls for the relief effort began to flood City Hall, as the national media descended upon the city. The calls came from across the country. Caterpillar, Frontier Communications and CEFCU are among the corporations that are making generous donations. The cause has received attention nationally and internationally. The consulate of Japan has reached out to express its sympathies. The United Kingdom has reached out. Even the recently typhoon-devastated Philippines reportedly offered assistance.
So, by now, I am sure you’re wondering what you can do to help. At this point, if you want to make a donation, the shelters are specifically requesting new pillows, coats, shoes and food at Dozer Park – but no more clothing (the previous donations will be moved from Countryside Banquet Facility to Sunnlyand Plaza). However, monetary donations are the best thing that you can give. There has been a Washington Tornado Relief Fund set up by the City of Washington that is accepting monetary donations that will be going directly to the victims. These donations can be made at any of the 33 Morton Community Bank branches statewide or donations can be mailed to Washington Community Bank, 1895 Washington Rd, Washington, IL 61571.
Once communications were restored on Monday, Washington began to get overwhelmed with offers to volunteer and provide – all people who wanted to help in any way they could. Volunteer efforts are now being channeled through the Tazewell Country Health Department, which can be reached at 309-925-5511. (UPDATE: You can also contact DisasterRecovery@tazewell.com to have your name put on the list.) This can be anything from assisting at the shelters to clean up of debris, and anything in between. Right now, they are still finishing up the damage assessments, and have just recently allowed displaced homeowners to have access to their properties. They will allow volunteers from neighboring communities in due time, but for now, the affected areas are being restricted to property owners with proof of identification, and family members. A curfew remains in effect through the end of the week from 6 PM to 7 AM, in which no one is allowed in the affected areas. You can also email email@example.com and your name will be put on a list to be contacted at a later date. Otherwise, the only way that you can physically help without going through these channels is if you gain access through a resident of the affected areas – there are plenty who will welcome (and have already welcomed) help with open arms.
There will be plenty of official opportunities to help out in the coming weeks. If you are in the area and want to help, the best thing you can do is to be patient, supportive and stay informed – the situation is evolving by the hour. The most up to date information can be found at this official Facebook page: Central Illinois Emergency Information, as well as the City’s website: www.ci.washington.il.us. However, be wary of other Facebook pages that are supposedly selling things for the victims, at least one of these pages has already surfaced. Tragedies have a way of bringing people together, but there are also always some rotten opportunists out there, lurking, shamelessly looking for a quick way to make a buck.
In addition, you are also welcome to make donations to the Red Cross by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS and specifying Washington, IL. This money will help in the relief effort, but I can’t confirm that it will go directly to the victims.
Remember, that as badly damaged as Washington was, it was just one of many places that was affected by the storm. I do not have all of the information to help out the other damaged cities, but I encourage you to keep Coal City, Pekin and the rest of the affected areas in your thoughts and reach out to those communities as well if at all possible.
The storm came and wreaked unfathomable amounts of havoc on Washington and throughout the Midwest. But it is over now. It is now the time for recovery. It seems like an overwhelming task at first, but the generosity and determination of the people of the community and the world at large have already made it clear that Washington will be rebuilt and its people will be supported.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.