'The emotional scars will never heal': Washington Mayor Gary Manier reflects 10 years after tornado
Washington Mayor Gary Manier was at church the day an EF4 tornado touched down in Central Illinois. By the time the tornado left the area, it would destroy hundreds of homes, injure hundreds, result in three deaths and cause almost a billion dollars in damages.
“I actually have never done this before, but I asked people to go to the basement,” said Manier, thinking back on the day. “We usually hear the sirens and, you know, the service continues. But that morning, it was…just something eerie about that tornado siren.”
Driving back from church in the Sunnyland area, Manier noticed the traffic signals were blank.
“And I’m thinking ‘boy, something’s really, really getting strange here,” he said. “And then I got back to Georgetown apartments and noticed the top two floors were gone.”
Manier went straight to work, helping load the injured into cars. Cell service was nonexistent, so communications happened through Morton dispatch. While helping a Peoria Police Officer load more of the injured, Manier told the officer he felt bad for the apartment residents.
“Have you looked over there?” the officer asked him.
“I hadn’t looked across the street,” Manier said. “And then…we could see as far as you could see, nothing but a debris field.”
An Endless Recovery
When you ask Mayor Manier about the recovery process for Washington, he’ll tell you it’s still in-progress. From rebuilding neighborhoods, to strengthening public infrastructure, to dealing with the aftermath of what was a traumatic experience for many residents, there are recovery goals that will be hard to ever define as completely finished.
“I don't ever say that we're recovered,” Mainer said. “I always say we're recovering because the emotional scars will never heal.”
But, in those early days, there were some urgent needs. The first was clearing debris.
Manier recalls a phone conversation with former Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and author Mark Moore from Joplin, Missouri. Moore had seen his own community go through a deadly tornado just a few years before in 2011.
“The first thing he kept saying is ‘you got to get rid of debris,” Manier said. “‘If debris is in the way, you can’t recover.’”
With the unseasonable tornado in November, winter was just around the corner. Manier says debris cleaning efforts started with the season’s first snow showers, that very evening. 56 inches of snowfall would follow, as Washington spent months in a bid to return to normal.
“We went about 38 straight days, picking up debris,” Manier said.
Manier says public works collected debris every day, including Sunday. Whatever residents could get to their curb was taken away by ceaseless waste management employees. However, the city didn’t take on this task alone. Even while dealing with their own debris, neighboring cities provided resources from their public works departments and volunteers to assist.
One day, Manier recalls a visit from then-Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, who counted 40 pieces of Caterpillar equipment hard at work on clearing debris.
“That was probably the biggest thing that happened and helped us recover,” Manier said.
A Statewide Community of Support
Washington’s businesses and churches had to step up to provide people with resources as they worked to pick up the pieces of their lives and homes. Manier remembers community leaders helping people get back their personal belongings, even as they were found scattered across Central Illinois.
DVDs, wedding videos, family-event loaded camcorders, treasured letters, jewelry and photos littered the ground from here to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
“Red Cross and Salvation Army they're trained to, to come when disaster hits, they come to our rescue, and they do it well,” Manier said. “But our churches just took it upon themselves. And I'm sure they don't have a playbook.”
Only one church, Our Savior Lutheran, weathered significant damage from the gale force winds. Crossroads Baptist Church opened a warming center and started providing meals. Connect Church helped people find temporary vehicles.
Church groups from all over the state came to volunteer as well. Manier estimates around 13,000 volunteers took part in the cleanup before it was done.
From the debris field of Washington’s battered neighborhoods emerged a new slogan for the town: Washington Strong. Manier says he was initially concerned it may be too similar to slogans other cities used after major tragedies or disasters, but it’s a phrase that has withstood the test of time.
As I interview Manier for this 10-year retrospective, a plaque bearing the catchphrase sits just over his shoulder. Yard signs all throughout town wish the high school football team a “Washington Strong” performance in the 2023 postseason.
“I think it just symbolized something to give us hope and make us stronger each and every day,” Manier said. “And I think we’re stronger for it and I think we’ll continue to use that Washington strong slogan.”
Manier says there were only about five lots that weren’t rebuilt after the tornado. Even then, he says neighbors bought the lots to develop on or combine them. Though he says he never expects the town to be completely back to “normal,” with residents still occasionally shivering at the wail of a tornado siren, Manier believes it’s the community's strength that kept almost all its residents here for the long haul.
“I think we have a lot to offer,” he said. “And I think that’s one reason a lot of people just chose to stay.”