In Washington, a community celebrates silver linings and remembers what it has lost.
One year after a deadly storm changed a community forever, the people of Washington, IL gathered together in remembrance, and in thanks.
The service held on November 17, 2014 in the Washington Community High School gym was titled “A Service for Wholeness in Remembrance of November 17, 2013.” It began with the gathering words of Washington Mayor Gary Manier. The Mayor opened by thanking a long list of groups that took part in the recovery efforts in the immediate aftermath of the storm, as well as everyone else who has volunteered their time and effort in the past year. Among the groups noted for their services were the Washington Fire Department; the Washington Police Department; the City Administration; Ameren Illinois; the churches of the community, and the community itself – for its resilience. “Today we are Washington strong,” Manier said in reference to the slogan that the community adopted soon after the storm. “Tomorrow we are Washington stronger.”
After the introduction, various pastors of the town’s churches took turns speaking, reading, and leading songs and prayers. Throughout each speech, there were frequent reminders of the nameless people who went out of their way to help others and of the organizations and institutions that made generous offers for the betterment of the community. Many of those involved in the community’s relief efforts weren’t even from the community. In one speech, a pastor noted a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve who came to Washington on the evening of the tornado, asking to help in any way he could, despite not knowing anyone in the town, as well as a man from northwest Indiana who showed up with a generator in the back of his truck. There were also mentions of the churches, the colleges and the schools that offered to open their doors to the victims who lost their homes.
One year later, everyone is cognizant of the fact that, although this community was greatly shaken and affected by the powerful force of nature, it has been galvanized by the countless acts of kindness that have occurred since. Pastor Clayton Tinnervin of Calvary Mennonite Church read an eloquent reflection that he wrote in the wake of the storm. In it he went so far as to call, both the indifferent destruction and the subsequent selflessness, acts of God; he even implied that the two were equally powerful forces. It was a strong indication of just how much Washington has been moved by the events of the past year. The service ended with a prayer, a song, a blessing and, appropriately, a moment of silence for the three people who lost their lives.
As far as the city has come, it’s not lost on these people that there is still a long way to go. Nearly 200 homeowners and families have received re-occupancy permits, but that is only a third of the homes that were completely destroyed by the tornado. In total, 1,100 homes were damaged in some way, many of which have been repaired or partially repaired, but have yet to replace furnishing and landscaping. A lot of the rebuilding will be put on hold for the winter, but there will be ample opportunities to contribute in the spring. City Administrator Tim Gleason confirmed that formal volunteering events organized by Bethany Community Church will begin again in April and will continue throughout 2015. In the past year, so many have come from far and wide to rebuild and lend a helping hand. Groups from organizations, high schools and colleges from as far as Minnesota have joined in the efforts to build a better Washington.
Though the storm wrought untold damage and left the city’s landscape forever changed, it also provided an opportunity for rebirth. Whereas before, much of Washington was made up of rows of anodyne houses that long preceded its occupants, now its people are injecting their individuality into the rebuilding process and restructuring neighborhoods that better reflect the true vibrancy of the community. The trees, too, are being replaced as a specific part of the volunteer effort.
“If the people can accept that the 70 year old oak trees are forever gone,” Gleason said, “this community will be better than the day before the tornado.”
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes travel-related articles for Continental Driftings, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices, The College Fix, and Voice of TV, among other places. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.