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A decade later, residents remain 'Washington Strong' after uniting in recovery from massive tornado

A field of debris shows the destruction from the EF4 tornado that struck Washington on Nov. 17, 2013.
National Weather Service
A field of debris shows the destruction from the EF4 tornado that struck Washington on Nov. 17, 2013.

The Washington residents who lived through the EF-4 tornado that struck the city 10 years ago aren't likely to ever forget it.

“Sometimes it feels like it just happened, and other times I can't believe it even happened at all,” says Gabrielle Edwards, one of the numerous people whose homes were leveled by the devastating storm.

Unseasonably warm temperatures and eerie dark skies were two of the warning signs of incoming severe weather on Nov. 17, 2013.

“It seems like any other day, but the weather was a little bit dreary. Everything seemed pretty normal otherwise,” Edwards said. “Then the weather suddenly turned so gross and foggy and rainy, and we were getting weather alerts on our weather radio.

“So we pulled the cars into the garage, because I didn't want them to be damaged by hail. We went to the basement, and everything changed at that point.”

Edwards said joined her husband and four children in taking shelter in their basement storage room.

“The winds got so loud. We could hear the sirens, but then the winds overtook that,” she said. “There were sounds that were just really unimaginable, and the wind was so hard that it was sectioning off parts of our house.

“My husband held the door shut for the storage room that we were in, and debris – particles of the house were flying in and hitting us as we were laying on top of the kids, covering them with blankets. Our dogs were just going crazy. We had two dogs that were just running around the room, and at one point when the door blew open, one of the dogs snuck out. We kept calling to her and she came back in.”

Paula Johnson was working at Methodist Hospital in Peoria when the sky went black and tornado warnings began blaring. She was helping to move patients away from the windows when she heard a tornado had touched down near the intersections of Cummings Lane and Cruger Road in Washington.

“I live in Devonshire Estates, which is right off Cruger Road, and I said, ‘Oh, that's dangerously close to my house. I'm just gonna go check my phone.’ I started walking down the stairs, and then just something – I felt anxious and started walking faster and got to my phone,” Johnson said. “I had a message from my husband, who also grew up in central Illinois and doesn't always take tornado warnings that seriously. So that was my concern, was: ‘Oh, if they had a warning, I hope that they got to the basement.’”

Johnson said she had received a message from her husband that he and their kids had heard sirens and spent a few minutes in the basement. But when she tried texting him back, she got no replies.

“I called, at that time we had a landline, and I got this – it just kind of went, ‘Do-do-do! This line is not in service,’ or some message like that. And I kind of went, ‘Oh.’ So then I tried calling a good friend of mine who just lives a couple of blocks away, and she answered the phone – and the first thing she said is, ‘It's gone. It's all gone.’”

Johnson said her neighbor was panicking, shocked by the destruction and unable to locate her dogs.

“She didn't remember I was at work; she thought I was calling to check on her,” Johnson said. “Anyway, it was kind of chaos, and the call got cut off. Then it took about half an hour before I could reach my husband, so you kind of know where my brain was going in those minutes.”

Both Edwards and Johnson said none of their family were injured. However, once the storm had passed, the devastation started to take its toll.

The aftermath

Edwards said she called out to each of her kids for them to say their name, so she would know they were OK. Each one’s response was a measure of relief.

“When it was finally over and everything got quiet, the light started to come in and we could see that there was severe damage above us. But we still didn't know what it was,” she said. “So my husband immediately left to check out the neighborhood, and I went up to look outside and I just couldn't believe it. The whole house was gone.

“It was so confusing, because I couldn't figure out the front yard from the backyard, because I climbed up what were the basement stairs, but it was full of bricks and siding and shingles. When I got upstairs and looked, I didn't know – I couldn't even recognize anything. The houses all around us were all gone. It was just debris in the yard.”

This Nov. 18, 2013 aerial file photo shows the path of the tornado that hit Washington on Sunday, Nov. 17.
Charles Rex Arbogast
This Nov. 18, 2013 aerial file photo shows the path of the tornado that hit Washington on Sunday, Nov. 17.

Johnson said when she was finally able to contact her husband amid the intermittent cell service, he told her the family was safe – but they couldn’t live in their house anymore. And then the call dropped again.

“I didn't know where he was. I didn't know where the kids were. I didn't know,” Johnson said. “So I tried – I drove to town, and I couldn't drive into town. I had to stop just outside of town because they weren't letting cars come in who weren't already here. I walked several miles actually from where I was able to park and just to walk to my house. I got to the neighborhood I grew up in and I don't see anything. I don't see anything. Then I looked down and I saw a doorknob in somebody's yard, and I thought, ‘Oh, this isn't great.’”

Johnson said when she first saw her house, it didn’t appear all that bad.

“There was a gutter hanging and, you know, tree damage, but it didn't look bad, but that's because the tornado hit the back of our house. So from the front it didn't look bad,” said Johnson. “My husband was there trying to gather some stuff for the kids and we went inside, and I just remember looking around and there are cracks in the ceiling and it smells very strange.

“It was dark and it was cold, and I remember, like, you have seen the movie ‘Twister’ a million times, and I'm thinking, ‘Is it structurally stable right now? Like, is there damage we can't see?’ So it was really nerve-wracking, running around trying to pick up jackets and clothes for the kids and stuff.”

As it turned out, Johnson’s house was heavily damaged and needed to be rebuilt from the foundation.

Edwards said she was taken aback by the way others came forward to help them sort through the chaos.

“I couldn't believe how many people would come and try to help us. We were just feeling confused and lost, and you don't even know where to begin when you lose everything you own. We didn't even have a meal or a toothbrush or shoes. Quite honestly, we didn't have shoes on our feet,” Edwards said. “So it was amazing the amount of people that came forward just to help us immediately.

“And moving forward, just friends and people that we didn't know, and organizations. They would donate things to us. They came and helped us sort of try to go through our piles of garbage in the yard to find pictures of our kids or just anything. It was amazing; it was really amazing how many people would be willing to help us.”

Edwards said it was far from ideal trying to rebuild her home in November as winter moved in. But she said there was a sense of comfort in that many others were going through the same thing.

Preserving the history

The 2013 tornado wasn't the first to touch Washington, but it was the most destructive.

John Stromberger is the archivist for the Washington Historical Society. He says they collected only a few artifacts from the 2013 tornado, but what they do have in spades are first-hand accounts like those of Edwards and Johnson.

“If you don't have that, you lose the actual effect of the event. If you read about there was a tornado in 1896, you don't have any sort of perspective as to as to what that was,” Stromberger said. “So now you read a memoir about somebody who had to walk from the south end of town to their home in Devonshire, because they weren't letting any cars in, and they didn't have any shoes – those things like that, that wouldn't come through in just a superficial history, those are the things that we're keeping, just so people can understand exactly what happened.”

Driving through the Devonshire subdivision today, anyone would be hard-pressed to tell a major natural disaster rolled through a decade ago. New homes and new trees have replaced much of what was destroyed. But memories still endure.

Stromberger points to the Community Spirit sculpture on the south side of Five Points Washington as a physical symbol of the city's resilience. He says the “Washington Strong” phrase coined after the tornado also recognizes how people stepped up in times of need to help their neighbors, and would do so again.

“Washington is Washington, and you wouldn't have suspected – because everybody kind of does their own thing when things are normal,” Stromberger said. “Everybody's, you know, you say ‘hi’ to your neighbors and things like that. But when something disastrous happens, you're the first one running over there to see if they're OK. I have no doubt that Washington would react the same way if something like that happened again.”

For Johnson, “Washington Strong” maintains a similar meaning. She says the community can set aside its differences and pull together when the going gets hard.

“Things have gone back to normal, which is great. I mean, that's what we wanted was for things to go back to normal,” Johnson said. “But yes, I 100% believe that if there were anything that happened, whether it was another tornado or some other tough event – I mean, I've watched people with health issues needing help from the community, and they pull together and support each other.

“So yeah, I absolutely believe it's still a thing.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.
Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.
Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.