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On Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, 24 tornadoes tore across Illinois.

 

Seven people died as a result of the storms.

 

One of the strongest tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service, slammed into the town of Washington, Ill., near Peoria. The tornado was rated an EF-4 with winds of 190 mph and a path of destruction that stretched for more than 46 miles through Tazewell and Woodford counties.

 

People living in these devastated areas have done everything in their power to help one another, rebuild their lives and renew their communities. Aid has arrived from around the country and President Obama approved disaster funding for 15 Illinois counties.  Life has slowly moved on. The Washington Community High School football team played in an IHSA Class 5A state semifinal game. Kids went back to school. Families prepared for Thanksgiving. The Tribune continues to follow these stories of hope, recovery and rebirth. Here the Tribune's photojournalists share what they've witnessed while covering this ongoing story.

 

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Washington, Ill., on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013 and the day after. More than 500 homes were damaged in the tornado, including that of Lindsay and Ben Dubois, who sort through wreckage hours after the storm. (Bottom right photo) (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

 

Zbignew Bzdak

On Sunday, Nov. 17, I was tracking a storm system producing tornadoes throughout the state. Radar indicated they were heading towards my home. As the sirens sounded, I headed to my basement. Once the storm passed, I took off for Washington, Ill., by all accounts the hardest-hit area of the state.

As I approached Washington, I could see the path of destruction, but all roads were closed. I parked my car on the side of the road and walked through the fields, ending up at Lindsay and Ben Dubois' house.  It was completely destroyed. They were trying to salvage memorabilia. They generously let me photograph their search.
 
As the sun set and the sky darkened, I decided to walk toward the Devonshire subdivision, which was almost completely leveled. In the first block, I saw a row of houses stripped of their siding.  In the next block, the houses were gone. Some floorboards remained, but in most places there were only basements.

From the darkness, I heard people calling out names as they searched through the rubble. People told me stories of survival, how they headed to basements with seconds to spare.
 
Finally I saw lights (yes, I forgot to bring my flashlight): a group of volunteer firefighters from East Peoria were searching for survivors and tagging checked houses.
 
The next day I met up with helicopter pilot Jeff Green. We flew over the devastation for several hours, photographing the path of destruction. We flew high to see the tornado's path, and then very low to see people returning to their houses. As we followed the tornado's path northeast of town, I saw something I'd never seen before -- the cycloid pattern of the twister etched in a farm field.

 

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Ella Bolam, left, comforts her sister Connie Hines on Nov. 19, as Hines sees Bolam's flattened home in Washington for the first time. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

 

Chris Walker

Covering any disaster is tinged with a bit of survivor's guilt. But the few people I met in Washington, Ill., were completely welcoming, searching through their destroyed homes, then pausing to offer me water.  Of course, it's a logistical nightmare for the media, getting access and filing stories. But it pales compared to what we see around us. I find the people of Washington inspiring.

 

_tornado_walkerJake Coyle, of East Peoria, carries a flag as he and others arrive to help friends dig out the day after the tornado hit Washington. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

 

Chuck Berman

In the town of Diamond, near Coal City, Ill., the first house I came upon had a set of truck wheels on the roof and a massive amount of debris in the front, including, literally, the kitchen sink. I was seeing a travel camper smashed into a house and broken apart. I saw roofs in back yards. At one house, the walls were ripped off, exposing a pair of second-floor, intact bedrooms. It was as if I was looking at a giant dollhouse. However, this dollhouse had an army of people picking through the mounds of debris.

 

Scores of residents, friends and, impressively, strangers came to help clean up. This was the morning after the tornado struck and everyone I spoke to, without reservation, said they were glad no one was injured and "stuff can be replaced". This sentiment was repeated over and over. One resident wheeled coffee, donuts and sandwiches through his neighborhood. There were no fatalities in Diamond, difficult to imagine with all that destruction.

 

Berman960b(Left) The rear wall of a home on Laura Lane is ripped away, exposing second floor bedrooms, mostly intact. (Right) Travel trailers at E.Z. Living R.V. Sales in Diamond, Ill., sit scattered like toys the day after the tornado. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune)

 

Michael Tercha

Two days after the tornado, volunteers were busy in the commercial area around the Christian Life Assembly church in Diamond, Ill., raking up debris, plucking metal roofing from trees and loading the remnants of destroyed buildings into pickup trucks. In some areas, the only reminder of the destruction was stubborn pink insulation caught in bushes and tree limbs.

Nearby in the Diamond Ridge neighborhood in Coal City, Ill., insurance adjusters were everywhere and contractors worked diligently covering roofs and gaping walls with blue tarps.  Home and business owners in both Diamond and Coal City seemed cheerful, secure that their properties would be rebuilt and happy to have survived. They munched away on provided sandwiches and had their pictures taken with visiting Chicago Bears players during breaks in the relentless shoveling, dumping and mopping.

Tercha960(Left) Residents and volunteers load a pile of debris into a dumpster in the Diamond Ridge neighborhood in Coal City, Ill., two days after the tornado. (Right) Chicago Bears' kicker Robbie Gould, center, along with other players, unloads donated supplies at the United Methodist Church in Coal City, Ill. on Nov. 19, 2013, for distribution to victims of the tornadoes. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune)

 

Nancy Stone

The town of Gifford, Ill., didn't get the same amount of attention as Washington. While there were thankfully no deaths in Gifford, people in the town of 1,000 were devastated by the tornadoes that tore through their tight-knit community.

 

Arriving into a town a week after the big news event is very different from covering the story immediately after the event occurs. People have time to assess their losses and contemplate the changes in their lives. I suspected by this time the citizens of Washington, Ill., were afflicted with media fatigue. This was not the case in Gifford. The local paper had covered the damage, but there wasn't media presence from around the country converging on their streets night and day. We were embraced by the people of Gifford and welcomed into their homes.

  _stone_thanksgivingThe Schluter family, all 18 of them, were celebrating an early Thanksgiving dinner in the Gifford home of Duane and Carolyn when the tornado hit on Nov. 17, 2013. One week later, on Sunday Nov. 24, they are in the home of their son Michael, eating their Thanksgiving dinner and saying prayers of thanks for sparing all of them from harm. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

_stone660Signs of optimism appear in Gifford, Ill., on Nov. 24, 2013, a week after a tornado devastated much of the town. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

 

I don't think I met a single person in Gifford who seemed defeated by the tornado. There was a strong sense of pride and community commitment. One teenage girl, whose family home had been destroyed, was dining with her church group at the local diner and told us that she loved her town, her small-town lifestyle and wanted to live in Gifford forever. As surprising as that may seem to us "big city" dwellers, that seemed to be the majority opinion.

I wanted to show the devastation of Gifford, but didn't want to dwell on photos of destroyed homes and businesses because we had already seen so many of those images. People were not yet rebuilding their homes, and the challenge of the assignment was to try and give an overall picture of a town whose residents were coming together to heal.

My hope is that I achieved this goal with photos of: a large family celebrating an early Thanksgiving; a woman sending her kids off to their first day of school since the tornado; and church services where friends and neighbors gathered at the sanctuary to lay hands on their fellow residents. I mostly shot photos of the destruction at sunset and sunrise, which gave an eerie beauty to the remains and a sense of hope for the future.

 

Anthony Souffle

When the tornado devastated Washington, Ill., the folks on the Tribune sports desk immediately thought of the undefeated Washington Community High School Panthers football team. The team members were preparing for a Class 5A state semifinal game against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. While the tornado didn't damage Washington's football field, school officials felt it best to move the team to Illinois State University for practice, in hopes of keeping the player’s minds focused on the game instead of destruction.
 

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Curt Marshall, the father of Washington Community High School starting quarterback Colton Marshall, holds up a piece of drywall from his tornado-ravaged house with the words "Touch Down" written on it. His son, quarterback Colton Marshall (10), stands on the field after the team scored a touchdown during the Panthers' Class 5A state semifinal game against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin. (Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune) 

 

Zbigniew Bzdak, who had spent several days photographing tornado damage, first spent time with the team practicing at Illinois State. I elected to stay in Washington with team's families. I was there with Curt Marshall, whose son Colton is the team's starting quarterback, as he searched though the rubble of their leveled home. Standing there with Curt, I had no idea how his son, or any other player, could keep his mind on football. The devastation there was unimaginable. Entire homes were taken down to the foundation. Possessions were scattered everywhere.

I spent time with players, parents and coaches as they tried to worry about football and not about leveled homes and displaced neighbors. I ventured out and explored the town, photographing the abundant instances of community support for the team.


On game day, community members lined the streets to wave goodbye and bid good luck as the team buses drove out of town, bound for Springfield. A few hours later, several buses generously chartered by Sacred Heart-Griffin arrived in Washington to transport fans whose vehicles had been destroyed.


In Springfield, the support for Washington Community High School was everywhere. An entire side of the stadium was filled with orange. Smack dab in the middle of the crowd was Curt Marshall, there to support his quarterback son. He came equipped with a piece of insulation from his destroyed home with the words "Touch Down" written on it. Sadly for the players and fans of Washington, the Panthers weren't able to pull out a win over the Cyclones, who went on to become state champions. But it was clear that football provided everyone in town with a welcome distraction, if only for a week.

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Clockwise from top left: Curt Marshall, whose son Colton is the starting quarterback for the undefeated Washington Community High School Panthers football team, looks over the remains of their home. | Washington Community High School's Chris Friend (43) and Mason Chockley (20) break though a banner as they and their team take the field prior to their Class 5A state semifinal game against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin on Nov. 23, 2013 in Springfield. | A "Panther Crossing" sign, in reference to the undefeated Washington Community High School football team, sits among the tornado debris in Washington. | Washington Community High School quarterback Colton Marshall, right, gets a hug from his dad after his team lost their Class 5A state semifinal game against the Cyclones of Sacred Heart-Griffin. (Anthony Souffle, Chicago Tribune)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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