WASHINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) — Ten years after a deadly EF-4 tornado with maximum wind speeds of 190 miles per hour tore through the city of Washington, current and past city leaders are reflecting on how they went from ‘search and rescue’ to ‘rebuild and recover.’
Sunday, November 17, 2013 was an abnormally warm day, said former Washington city administrator Tim Gleason. He was grabbing a coffee with his daughter when the sirens rang out.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long and then in some ways it just seems like it’s been forever,” he said.
Gleason, who served as the city administrator from 2012 to 2015, said city officials immediately went into search and rescue mode. With three people killed, nearly 600 homes destroyed and more than 1,100 structures impacted, the key was to seek opportunities to recover and rebuild.
“Nobody asked for this but in a lot of ways you’ve got a blank canvas to start rebuilding your community in a better way than the day before. So you have to seize those for the community’s sake,” he said.
To help businesses and homeowners recover, the city cut red tape. In particular, Washington Estates neighborhood was completely wiped out.
“We tried to pave the way for them to get back into business as quickly as they possibly could,” said Gleason.
“We tried to expedite the effort as much as possible. We basically waived all of our permitting fees,” said Jon Oliphant, the city’s planning and development director.
Oliphant said all residents were impacted, even if their homes were left untouched.
“Whether you were in the path or not was impacted on a temporary basis. It was extremely difficult to get around the city in the first couple of weeks right afterwards,” he said.
Gleason said a staggering 98 percent of Washington residents chose to stay and rebuild.
“The return rate in Washington is amazing and far exceeds to what most communities realize…I think every community has their sense of pride, but there was a depth unlike what I have ever experienced in any community that I’ve served in my professional career that was just amazing,” he said.
“I think very early on the residents were very strong in wanting to come back…And as those subdivisions slowly but surely came back to life, we wanted to make sure that the public safety was of utmost priority to make sure that those people that were coming in, occupying their homes again, we’re not going to be in harm’s way,” added Oliphant.
Washington Mayor Gary Manier said people from near and far came to help the community rebuild in their time of need.
“The amazing thing about the whole thing is people are so good in Central Illinois. I mean, people came from everywhere. We had to shut off our entrance into town on Sunday afternoon because there were so many people coming in. There were 200 doctors and nurses that came to the triage center. It was just remarkable,” he said.
Gleason said the city did not meet the threshold for federal assistance, but the state of Illinois stepped in with a nearly $15 million grant.
“So we probably did better that receiving the public assistance declaration from the federal level. So we were very fortunate in that regard,” he said.
In the aftermath of storm, city leaders held regular town hall meetings to help the community recover by offering resources and information.
“It was amazing because even in the aftermath, in the middle of the night, all you could hear was air hammers, nail guns, back up alarms, people doing the work to put their city back together, residents back together. It was the sound of hope,” said Manier.