WASHINGTON, Ill. - Washington Mayor Gary Manier can take you to the very place where on November 17, of 2013, it entered his city on the southwest side of town. Today, there is normalcy.
Four years after a devastating EF4 tornado, and after millions of dollars in damage to over a thousand homes, there's nothing to remind you of what happened, except one vacant lot.
Farther away, near where Georgetown Commons apartments were located, you can still see trees missing their tops, four years after. But across the street, in what was one of the older subdivisions, there's freshness. Things look, and are, new. There's a reason for that.
"It was amazing," says Washington Mayor Gary Manier. "You could hear hammers going that first night, putting up tarps. I would never try to rebuild a house in wintertime, but god loved our residents," he says. "That first year, we had 30% of the houses rebuilt, if not 40."
But in those first days, the Mayor was worried. He was afraid that rebuilding might not take place. That people would simply pack up and leave. It's not an unreasonable fea. After a devastating tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, on May 22 of 2011, the city had a tough time recovering. Joplin's population dropped by nearly 5%.
"I'm thinking of all the people that were, at that point in life, ready to go to a condo, move closer to the kids," Mayor Manier says. "I'm thinking, a whole subdivision right behind me, those people may not rebuild."
But Washington residents have rebuilt. There are only 7 lots that remain vacant, out of 1,108 homes which were damaged or destroyed. Now, the city of Washington is having a special census. The Mayor believes the signs are there that the city's population has continued to increase.
In the days and weeks after the tornado struck, there were some 13,000 volunteers who showed up to help Washington residents. But the Mayor got some good advice from the Mayor of Joplin, Missouri, to keep letting people know help was needed.
"Mark Wolf from Joplin said 'You've gotta keep the story alive, You're only one disaster away from losing your volunteers.' So every time I had a chance to go on Chicago radio or TV, I did - just to say we can still use some help."
Washington, Illinois has come through a disaster in a way some communities could not. Volunteers helping, transparency by the city about what was happening next, residents with good insurance, that all helped clear the way for rebuilding. The Mayor's still not happy about FEMA's lack of funding, but he does have good words for the State of Illinois.
"Finding the funds to help us repair our roads and streets and things, and put our community back together," says the Mayor. "We'd be in bad, bad shape right now."
Outside Five Points in Washington, there's a sculpture commissioned by Washington resident John and Sharon Amdall. It honors the three people who died and is dedicated to 'all those whose strength and courage rebuilt Washington after the tornado of November 17, 2013.'
"It's all about the quality of life here. And I think people moved here for a reason, they raised their family here for a reason. So, they weren't ready to be pushed out by a nasty storm."
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