Frizzi: What a Difference a Year Makes

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I was walking out to my car one evening this past week. There were snow flurries and the ground was covered with a thin rug of snow. We had been hit with an early cold snap, apparently the result of another polar vortex.

“Sure is cold out here!” said a person who walked past me. “I wish it was a lot warmer!”

A year ago, it was a lot warmer in November. The temperature was in the 70s a year ago, on Sunday, Nov. 17. That’s when the area was hit by a horrible set of storms, one of which was an EF-4 tornado that wreaked havoc in the small town of Washington, Illinois.

The twister barnstormed its way northwest, trashing a golf course and leveling an AutoZone store while leaving the TSC store directly behind it without a scratch. It then proceeded to lay waste to a whole suburb before stripping barren a ranch house of roof and brick on Main Street. It turned a wooden farm house and barn into splinters before it crossed Highway 24. It narrowly missed the Crossroads United Methodist Church, which would become sanctuary for hundreds of homeless. First aid and insurance trailers would occupy church’s parking lot for the next several weeks.

The farm land around the area looked like a junk yard. Piles upon piles of debris that used to be furniture in homes were cleared off of Main Street. A chain link fence acted as a strainer, capturing shreds and shards.

My wife Heddy and I live in Washington, just a block off the town square. I saw the tornado from the front porch of my house. It was just behind the water tower. I still see it when I look at the water tower. Astoundingly, there were only three casualties. Most of the homes were empty because their occupants were at church.

That was just one year ago.

Since then, this town has lived up to its new slogan, “Washington Strong.” Those signs were everywhere. So were the black and orange t-shirts. Both told the world that Washingtonians were battered and bruised but not beaten. They would rebuild.

It was like the scene from the movie “Going My Way” when the church burned down. The long-time parish priest, played by Barry Fitzgerald, watched his whole life vanish before his bespectacled eyes. His assistant, played by Bing Crosby, tried to comfort him. While looking into the flames, Bing told the old Father, “Don’t worry, we’ll build again!”

Washington did exactly that.

This Saturday, Heddy and I went out about town and ran our errands. We decided to stop by Cummins Family Restaurant. We like to belly up to the counter and get our breakfast.

Cummins Family Restaurant is on Peoria Street. It missed getting smacked by the tornado by about a block. Fortunately it was between shifts when the tornado plowed by, so the restaurant was not packed. The staff took shelter in the bathrooms.

Nearby, the La Gondola restaurant was battered. The Georgetown Apartments directly behind it lost the upper level. Then, the tornado barreled across Peoria Street and blew out the windows of the John Bearce Auto dealership before it headed toward the subdivision.

Tornadoes are random like that.

So, on the way back home, Heddy and I drove through the subdivision to check out the progress. I would drive through from time to time, to see how things were going.

It looked like the creation of a whole new subdivision. Going up Dallas Road, through Kingsbury, Westminster, Devonshire and over to Cruger Road, we saw new houses springing up like a crop of spring corn. Many of the homes that weren’t quite leveled had new windows.

The best sight was signs on the homes that proudly proclaimed that “The Smith’s Are Home! Washington Strong!” For the most part, the families stayed and rebuilt. They had been relocated into rental property for the past year.

We did see a couple of “For Sale” signs. We assumed the owners had purchased a home elsewhere in the area and rebuilt on their property to sell.

Sadly, there were a couple of vacant lots here and there. All that was left was a foundation and driveway with the hope that someone will come and build again.

The day the tornado hit, I went over to the subdivision to volunteer. I found myself at what was left of a house on Hampton Road.

I ended up helping a man who was helping his son salvage some clothes for his granddaughters. His son was standing on the rubble that was his daughter’s bedroom. The room was tilted at a 30 degree angle. The little girl’s father was pulling wet, soiled clothing out of drawers and a closet, putting them into any type of container he could find; he handed it to his father, who handed it to me and another person, who walked it out to a pickup truck. Footing is bad when you walk on rubble. I picked up a scraped up scale model Dale Earnhardt car and put it into a bag with some laundry. A Tony Stewart model was badly damaged, so they told me to leave it. The son’s van was parked on the far side of his pile of house.

I was hoping they had rebuilt. I wasn’t sure of the exact address but on his side of Hampton, there were two vacant lots. I think one was his former home and wondered how he and his family were doing.

I found a green battered softball in the street and took it home. I hope that isn’t considered looting. I’m looking at it right now. It has the name “Leonard” written on it.

The brick ranch house on Main Street near the church has been torn down. A new one has replaced it, complete with a brand new barn. The lot across the street, where the old wooden farm house and barn used to be, has long since been cleared. Weeds sprout on the site. The driveway is the only reference point left.

The farmland on both sides of Main Street has been cleared. Crops were able to be planted and harvested, although the land behind the brick ranch house was considerably littered. The land directly to the left of the house could not be used for planting. Throughout the year, volunteers, like farm workers, would pick a harvest of tornado trash from the field. Next year, the field should yield a more productive crop.

Personally, I’m a warm weather type of guy. I dislike the bone chilling cold of November. But not this November! Let it get cold. Let the wind sting my face. Let it snow, but not too much. My snow blower is still in the shop!

Because that’s what weather is supposed to be like in Washington, Illinois in November.


About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.