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Lessons Learned From the November 17, 2013, Tornado

It’s been a little over a year now since the Washington, Illinois, tornado on Sunday, November 17, 2013. I remember that day well. It was a very warm morning, nearly 70 degrees, and WINDY. I went to the store that morning and bought stuff to make the family breakfast and some snacks for the Bears game that afternoon. I remember coming home from the store, seeing my friend out running with his dog, and thinking how crazy he was for running when it was that windy.

We had been hearing for a couple days that there was potential for strong storms to develop along with the unseasonable warm weather. We didn’t think much of it; tornados are not uncommon to Central Illinois, and we grow up with a couple a year and practicing tornado drills all through school. Usually the tornado touches down in a field somewhere, the farmer might lose part of a barn, and our downspouts blow around the neighborhood.

For some reason, my in-laws had recently given us a weather radio, and thankfully we had seen fit to set it up. Just before 11:00 a.m. that day, the weather radio went off and said there had been tornados, and we had about 10 minutes until it reached Washington. I quickly sent a text message to a friend that had recently moved to Washington, telling them to get to the basement. We got a couple glasses of water, grabbed the iPad and a computer along with our cell phones, and headed with our kids and dog to the basement. At this point, we were still pretty calm, certain that whatever this was would pass by. We turned on the TV for the kids and started a Bob the Builder. My oldest son (4 at the time) walked toward a basement egress window just as we lost power. When the power went out, we knew something wasn’t right and we could hear it coming. We grabbed the family and headed to a safe place in the basement. Our lives were about to change. I’m not sure we ever feared for our lives as we huddled in the corner of our office, but we heard our house being ripped to shreds. That freight train sound people talk about … it’s real. The pressure change is intense. The whole thing probably lasted 10-15 seconds, my ears popped constantly, and I just remember thinking “please be over, please stop,” as I tightly held my two- and four-year-old children.

It was over. As I walked out of our office, I observed that the door that used to be attached at the top of the stairs was now at the bottom. I heard water running, I smelled gas, and I could see daylight coming down the stairs. My wife was adamant that we get out of the basement because she smelled the gas leaking. (I wasn’t as concerned, as I was quickly learning that the house was ventilated quite well.) The stairs were covered in broken glass … glass from our house and our car and nails from the roof … and we had no shoes. First take a way: put some shoes on before going to the basement, or make sure you have some in the basement. So my wife and I picked up the kids and carried them up the stairs barefoot while I also tried to hold on to the dog’s collar. We reached the top of the stairs only to find we were blocked in. The back wall of the house with a broken window in the middle of it lay propped up against one side of the stairway, and the other side was propped against our Honda Pilot … our stairs did not join with the garage. The Honda Pilot was on its roof, on top of our dining room table, blocking our way out. The dog had an idea, jumped through the broken window, and cut himself. So now we were stuck at the top of the stairs, and the dog was running around in all this debris bleeding. Somehow we were able to get a cell phone call to go through to my parents who live nearby. They had no damage and were going to jump in the car and head over. A neighbor running through the backyard stopped to help us lift our kids out, and then my wife and I crawled over the wall and spotted some shoes to put on. My parents arrived quickly; however, someone said there was another tornado coming, so we all headed into my neighbor’s dark basement and waited (and in case you were wondering, yes, the dog was with us again). After about ten minutes, we decided we needed to get the kids to safety, and it would be best if we got out of there, so we all packed into my parents’ car and headed back to their house. We got there, and at least momentarily, breathed a sigh of relief.

Then it hits you … oh my gosh, what just happened? What do I do now? My wife wondered aloud if our neighbors were alive. My friends were starting to text; they didn’t believe me when I told them the house was gone. Time for another piece of advice: if you don’t have someplace to go, it’s time to figure out now what that place should be. Find a hotel, preferably one with running water and power, because the next week is going to be rough. Next, if you don’t have access to transportation (a friend or family member’s car you can borrow maybe), then get on the phone with a rental company. You are going to need transportation, and like hotel rooms, transportation is going to quickly be snatched up. We were fortunate that my family lived close and had an extra car. Which brought me to my next thought: we had two cars … what happened to the second car? I never saw it.

So, after some time (maybe an hour) and some pacing around the house, my wife and I decided we needed to head back to the house, evaluate what was left, and look for some belongings (family heirlooms, IDs, wallet, purse, jewelry, etc.). Which brings up another point: that spot in the basement where you keep those extra shoes I mentioned earlier, along with those, or in a fireproof safe, you should store an extra ID, an emergency use credit card, and some cash. You are going to need it for that hotel room and rental car, and shortly you aren’t going to be able to re-enter this ‘war zone’ without ID.

Very little will prepare you for what you are about to see. I know you just left this neighborhood an hour ago, but trust me, in that state of survival, you have no idea how bad it really is. As we approached our neighborhood, it looked like a war zone. The houses were gone, and it was just piles of debris everywhere. We didn’t recognize anything, and there were no street signs. Helicopters were beginning to whir overhead. That would be a constant and eerie sound for the next week. We got to our house, and it was worse than I thought with only a couple walls left standing. We wondered briefly about whether the electrical was shut off and if the gas had been shut off at the main. We assumed that since the electricity went out before the storm and since there was nothing to trap the gas, it was probably ok, and we got to work. First, time to look for IDs. Somehow our bedroom closet organizer was partially intact, which was where my wallet was. The wall it was attached to was an exterior wall and had moved in about six inches from the edge of the foundation. After a lot of work, pulling and moving stuff around, I managed to pull the drawer open and there was my wallet. That was a big relief. My wife managed to find her purse on the floor, next to where the countertop it sat on used to be. The counters and cabinets were out in the yard, but somehow her purse was nearly untouched. We were lucky to find those! A while later, friends and family began to show up to help. One person even managed to get a truck in. We sifted through stuff, looking for valuables, pictures, etc., and tried to decide what to salvage immediately, knowing we only had a few hours of daylight left (it was November) and not knowing what the looters would take later.

I mentioned earlier that we had shelter; here is what I didn’t mention: they were also out of power, given their proximity to the destruction, and they were on a well, which meant no water without a generator for the well pump and no heat if it got cold. They did, however, have a small generator, so in the evening we were able to run some lamps, light some candles, and plug the fridge in. Not ideal, but better than being out in the cold. I believe it was Wednesday night around 8:00 p.m. before we finally had running water again. You really appreciate a shower after that many days.

So that first night I finally called my insurance company and opened claims on the house and cars. You may be wondering why I waited so long to call. I knew given the amount of destruction it would be some time before they would be able to assist, and I had a copy of my policy (it was in the basement; you too should keep a copy in that safe I mentioned earlier). Which brings me to a key point: know that you are covered before the event happens because after it happens, it’s too late. Meeting with your insurance agent may not be fun, and you may groan at the increased premiums, but knowing that it’s there and you are covered certainly is a huge relief when the worst does happen.

The days that followed were much of the same: trying to get access to your house, trying to find a back way in so you could get a truck or trailer in, frustration with law enforcement as you are turned away, even once not being allowed back to the house where my kids and I were staying and having to park a borrowed vehicle along the side of a busy highway and walk back to my parents’ house only to get all the way back and have them open the road back up. There were also moments of joy, like when my wife found her wedding rings and a custom ring she had made with stones that had been passed down through the generations. There are also moments of sorrow … finding your grandpa’s (who had passed away earlier that year) rifle days later in the road, broken, rusted … destroyed. In the end, it’s mostly just stuff; we survived, we moved on, eventually stronger.

Oh and by the way, over the coming months, you have to make a list of EVERYTHING you own(ed), what room it was in, and what its value was if you expect to get money for it.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Get a weather radio.
  2. Talk with your insurance agent, know your coverage, and know your exposures.
  3. While it is unrealistic to inventory your house, at least on an annual basis walk through your house with a camera/video camera. Take lots of photos and video of everything. Store those photos and videos somewhere safe like a safe deposit box at the bank. Also, store backups of important family photos, savings bonds, etc. in the safe deposit box. If you can’t afford a water and fireproof safe for your house, that extra ID, credit card, and cash could be stored there also.
  4. Think about what’s important to you, and when possible, take steps to protect those things.
  5. Keep a pair of shoes or preferably boots in the basement.
  6. Consider keeping a small ration of food and water in the basement.
  7. If you take a medication necessary for your health/survival, consider keeping a couple days’ supply separate from your main medication. Same thing for glasses/contacts!
  8. If you have warning and are going to the basement, take cell phones, computers, and wallets with you. They are our communication link, and likely, they have a lot of your family photos stored on them.

Even after the storm, I don’t consider myself a ‘prepper’ or survivalist; however, the items above will certainly help you in the days and weeks and year following such a scenario.

If you are still reading and wondering about that second car that was missing (also an SUV), we found it in our front yard. It was rubber side down; however, the second story of the neighbor’s house from across the street was mostly on top of it.

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