A series of over 20 tornadoes hit central Illinois on Nov. 17. Over 300 Cedarville alumni live in affected areas, according to alumni relations.
The city of Washington, Ill., received the brunt of the storm’s harm, with over 1,000 homes damaged or destroyed and one life lost, according to ABC Chicago. According to the Peoria Journal Star, another person died a week and a half later of related injuries. The EF4-level storm traveled 46 miles on the ground before dissipating.
The Cedarville Connection
Connie Huff, a 1986 graduate, lost her house in the storm. Huff, who was at Bay View Baptist Church in Washington when the storm hit, said she originally was not concerned because she thought it was merely a flash flood. It was not until she and her family returned to their neighborhood that she understood the extent of the storm’s devastation.
“I first saw the duplexes across the street from us, and they were completely flattened,” Huff said. “When we finally could see our house, it was all caved in. My heart stopped because our two German Shepherds were in the house.”
The walls of the house had collapsed, and the ceilings were missing. When she found a tub and mattress lying in their living room, Huff said she thought their dogs were underneath them. However, shortly afterward a neighbor came to their door with the dogs, saying they had been found down the street.
“Once I saw our dogs were not harmed, a complete peace came over me,” Huff said. “I was OK, my kids and husband were OK, and the dogs were unharmed.”
The basement remained intact, which Huff said was a blessing because the family photo albums, tax papers and other important documents were stored there.
Huff’s son Garret and daughter Erica both lost all their belongings. Huff said they adjusted well once they realized everything they had lost was replaceable.
“I had to laugh at my son when we first went into the house and realized his bedroom was no more,” Huff said. “First thing he said after we figured out where our dogs were was, ‘Oh man, my Xbox was in my room.’ He’s a typical teenager.”
Philip Ausfahl, a 2000 Cedarville graduate, and his wife Charisa, a 2001 graduate, were both in a church service at Bethany Community Church in Washington when a church leader interrupted to announce there was a tornado warning and that everyone needed to take shelter. Both Philip and Charisa went to join their four young children, who were in Sunday school.
Philip said the tornado could be heard through the walls shortly after they took shelter.
“It sounded something like the world’s largest freight train engine driving the world’s largest chipper at full speed with an enormous roar of wind to stitch it all together,” Philip said. “My father-in-law later said he could feel the vibration in the concrete floor under his feet. The noise lasted for a minute and a half altogether.”
Charisa said after the weather cleared and they were able to leave the building, it appeared the tornado had passed within 1,000 yards of the church.
Search and Rescue
Philip, an EMT, said he began to survey the destruction as soon as the tornado passed. He and an EMT/firefighter began a house-to-house search for victims.
“I was not prepared for what I saw,” Philip said. “No streets were visible. No yards were visible. No trees or houses were standing. No landmarks remained. The landscape looked like someone had taken every house, tree, car and personal possession and put it in a blender with no top. I could not orient myself to where we were because of the continuous, unending sea of debris around us.”
In two of the first houses they encountered, Philip and his partner found one woman in each house trapped dangerously close to leaking gas pipes.
“I became very thankful to be working with a firefighter who was more accustomed to dealing with uncontrolled gas,” Philip said. “I half-thought and half-prayed that I needed to stay alive to see my family tomorrow.”
Philip said they found a ladder and were able to help the women to safety. Of the victims they encountered, few were seriously injured.
When Philip left to help with search and rescue, Charisa prepared their children for their return home. The community center that houses the church was designated as a triage center, and she said she wanted to shield the children from the sight of the incoming victims.
She found their unharmed van in the church parking lot and began the journey home.
“Our town had been reduced to a massive sea of sticks,” Charisa said. “Complete neighborhoods were gone. It took us about an hour to drive our usually seven-minute drive home. Roads were blocked with debris. At one point, we were driving on the sidewalk to allow emergency vehicles to get into the area.”
After their long drive, the Ausfahl family found their house still standing without any damage.
Debbie Jo Hodges, a 1988 Cedarville graduate and mother of Cedars design director Jenni Hodges, was also at Bethany Community Church when the tornado struck. As the church children’s ministry director, Hodges was responsibile to lead the children’s Sunday school classes to the storm shelter.
“By God’s grace, we had practiced that (tornado) drill a month before,” Hodges said.
Over 100 children and a few adults gathered in the central room designated as a tornado shelter, Hodges said. When the building lost power, parents pulled out their phones to provide light.
“We kept the children singing songs partly to keep them calm and partly to prevent them from hearing the noises from outside,” Hodges said. “It was precious to hear those children sing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children,’ and ‘My God is So Big, So Strong and So Mighty.’”
The group took shelter for about an hour before they could leave safely.
The Scope of the Destruction
The wave of thunderstorms on Nov. 17 brought destructive winds and tornadoes to 12 states: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Iowa, Missouri, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. A total of 24 tornadoes touched down in Illinois between approximately 10:50 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., according to the National Weather Service
“What we saw was 1,484 homes categorized as either completely destroyed or with major damage,” Illinois Emergency Management Agency director Jonathon Monken said to CNN.
The National Weather Service said Washington’s tornado had winds between 170 and 190 miles per hour, giving it an EF4 damage rating. The tornado created a path one-eighth of a mile wide from one side of town to the other. According to the American Red Cross, out of the 200 people injured by the rash of tornadoes, about 120 of them were residents of Washington – a city of 15,000 about 140 miles southwest of Chicago, according to the city’s website.
In the aftermath of the tornado, a 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew was imposed on the city of Washington and admittance to affected areas was only granted to residents of certain neighborhoods.
Huff and her husband slept in their basement the night after the tornado.
“We didn’t want to leave in fear that we wouldn’t get back in,” Huff said.
She spent the next three days working with family members and volunteers from Bay View Baptist Church to clear the yard and empty the house, which needed to be torn down.
“(Members of) an organization called Global Compassion Network came up to my husband and asked what they could do for us,” Huff said. “He told them, ‘I need our house torn down.’ They said, ‘Give us 45 minutes, and we will have everything there to do it.’ They had it down, and all hauled away by the end of the day. God has just put all the right people in the right places just when we needed them.”
Bethany Community Church started sending out work teams the following Monday at 8 a.m.
“I have been leading BCC teams every day they have been sent out,” Philip Ausfahl said. “The Saturday following the disaster, BCC sent out over 100 teams and over 1,000 people into the disaster area.”
Charisa Ausfahl said she was part of one of the teams that went into the community that Saturday. Her team moved two families into temporary apartments and cleared a field and an apartment complex courtyard.
“Since streets had been identified and cleared, the goal was to get debris to curbs to be hauled away,” Charisa said. “I remember driving away at the end of the day. The debris was piled as high as our 12-passenger van on both sides of all the streets. It was like we were driving through tunnel after tunnel of debris. It was overwhelming.”
The recovery process is more complex than simply the physical cleanup of damaged homes and neighborhoods.
“A few days after the storm, my boys were playing with their cars, and I heard their toy sirens,” Charisa said. “I froze as all the emotions swept over me again, and I was physically ill.”
One day shortly after the tornado, Hodges said she wrapped a couple of Christmas presents.
“I cried,” Hodges said. “A few days before, I was sifting through the rubble of someone’s home. They found something, and they said, ‘That was going to be a Christmas present for my daughter this year.’ It’s even hard for those of us who didn’t lose anything.”
Mary Miller is a senior nursing major and off-campus news editor for Cedars. She loves her coffee, enjoys reading and shares her favorite song lyrics at @nsggirlz36.
Column: The One Tornado That Mattered (December 2013)