VIDEO: Washington, Illinois, tornado damage raw footage as seen from Chopper 7 HD
PHOTOS: Washington IL Tornado Damage Photos from Chopper 7HD
PHOTOS: Washington, Illinois tornado damage, suburban Chicago storm damage
Washington homeowners were allowed back early on Tuesday into the heavily-damaged area for the first time since a tornado devastated the Illinois town. More than 1,000 homes and businesses were damaged by the twister, according to the mayor.
It's an emotional ride as Dave White recalls the Sunday tornado that nearly wiped out his family.
"When you crawl out of a basement after you dig yourself out of a wall, wall fell on top of me and my wife and son are in the basement, and they got out," said White.
White, his wife Vicki and adult son Paul took cover in the basement of their ranch home as the twister ripped through the neighborhood he and his family have lived in for 32 years.
"Heard the sirens and the sirens were gone and the sky was light to dark to black and then all hell broke loose. . . I feel this pulsation, this pounding in my ears, it was like someone was taking a suction cup in and out of my ears and that lasted for 45 seconds as soon as that stopped I could feel debris hitting my left side," said Dave White, house destroyed by tornado.
"The floor was lifted, so we were totally exposed, but he took the brunt, and we walked out. We walked out," said Vicki White, wife.
The White family and hundreds of their neighbors are now starting the process of getting their lives back together, with the help of insurance. Companies have sent disaster teams to the town with adjusters writing checks on the spot.
"We have folks who have lost everything, they've lost homes. We want to make sure that they're getting into hotels," said Holly Anderson, State Farm.
The family next door to the Whites, Dawn and Kevin Crider, were at church and their 13-year-old daughter Savanna was several blocks away at a friend's house, using her camera phone to take video of the tornado she thought was far away. It actually destroyed her home.
"I got a call from my friend saying my house was gone. . .You know, I could have been home when that happened. That scares me," said Savanna Crider, tornado victim.
At the time, Crider was blocks away, but on Tuesday, she was at the ruins of her home.
"Before one of my friends left, she got me a bear. I hope I can find something like that, something that has some memory to it," said Crider.
When the family got word their home was gone, they panicked, thinking their dog was lost, too. But as they searched the rubble and to their great relief, Maggie May, their black lab, was buried but alive.
Maura O'Brien found her cat.
"We're just so grateful and thankful for everything," said Maura O'Brien, tornado victim.
Man finds flag from his WWII veteran father's casketEver since the storm hit, decimating his home, Kevin Patton's thoughts have turned to his late father, who was a World War II paratrooper.
The flag that draped his casket that once rested in this frame, now lost to the wind.
"Hopefully we'll find it. . . I mean, everything we're finding is a little bit of this. A little bit of that. And they just pulled out a photo album. That was great," said Kevin Patton, tornado victim.
Two doors down, on this devastated block, the search is also intensely personal.
"We can't even find my mom's meds, and trying to call and get medicines replaced. We have to ship them, or you have to go to the VA to get them in person," said Tina Murray, daughter of tornado victims.
When the storm hit, Tina Murray was with her mother and 87-year-old father, also a World War II vet, in a first floor room that no longer exists.
Because her dad was bedridden, they couldn't get to the basement.
"I thought this was it. And here we just had a wedding two weeks ago. My daughter got married. And now we've gone through a tornado, and they lost everything," said Murray.
They somehow survived, and are now searching for the little things that mean everything, like the photos Murray's father risked his life for as an army photographer during the war.
"That was a sense of joy that we were able to find things from their past that we'll be able to have for good. . . This is big stuff for us. Very important. Oh yeah," said Murray.
Back at Kevin Patton's house, there is relief that his dog survived.
ABC7 Eyewitness News reporter Eric Horng says: "Maybe he can sniff that flag out for you." Patton: "Yeah, it would be nice to find it."
Moments later, Patton finds the flag, buried in the rubble.
"That's a lot. That's great. That is great. He had a battlefield citation, they lost so many people in his unit-- actually, they lost two-thirds of his unit. Two-thirds of the 507th didn't come home. =That's the uh, the flag off of dad's coffin," said Patton.
On a day like this, in a place like this, finding something-- anything-- familiar, is victory.
Insurance companies begin meeting with Washington residents
Insurance companies are meeting with Washington residents right away to try to reimburse them for their immediate expenses.
There are a few moments of solitude for Brandy Wenger Tuesday afternoon as she surveys what's left of her home. Like so many others, she lost just about everything in those few minutes Sunday morning.
"It's surreal. It hasn't completely hit me yet, so, give me a couple more days," said Brandy Wenger, tornado victim.
She was able to find her favorite blanket. Down the road, Kimberly Doubet is trying to salvage what she can-- and like most of her neighbors in the path of destruction Sunday, that's not much.
"We've been finding pictures, picture frames, stuff my aunt painted, old anniversary presents," said Kimberly Doubet, tornado victim.
Insurance adjusters are also on the scene, helping customers get the paperwork going on their claims. State Farm agents are set up in a nearby church meeting with customers, making sure they have a place to stay and cutting checks for living expenses. It's an emotional time.
"It's really moving. It's humbling, and it really speaks to the resolve of this community," said Holly Anderson, State Farm.
Kimberly and Phillip Lange hid with their kids in the basement as the storm destroyed much of the home above them. Somehow despite that, they say they are thankful.
"I dare say it was the best day of my life because I felt so kept in the palm of God's hand, and we were so surrounded by love, so surrounded by support," said Kimberly Lange, tornado victim.
Heavy equipment arrives in Washington
"Hope to find a few personal items, and that's about all you can hope for, I guess, because the rest of it's just totally gone," said Tony Hibbard, tornado victim.
Sheila Casey and her boyfriend Toby Hibbard moved into their home four months ago, and were picking out paint colors just last week.
"I think it's helped bring both of our families together, so if that's what comes out of it, then I'm happy for that, and I thank God for that," said Sheila Casey, tornado victim.
What brought them together tore the home apart.
"Just as soon as we got to the landing to the basement door, I got her in there, and it just blew me through the door basically," said Hibbard.
"And after it was all done, all we could see was daylight and water dripping through," said Casey.
Their search for essentials has so far turned up nothing.
The deed to their home, vehicle titles, wallets and purses are still missing.
Somewhere in this pile of debris are two Harley Davidsons.
"When you have a whole home that's completely collapsed and sometimes even covered with your neighbor's home, it's almost impossible to go through the debris by hand. And you need equipment to do it," said Tad Agoglia, First Response Team of America.
Helping people dig out here is the First Response Team of America, a non-profit victims' relief group armed with heavy equipment from Caterpillar, which is based in nearby Peoria.
This equipment has been to every major disaster in recent years: Superstorm Sandy, the Joplin, Missouri and Moore, Oklahoma tornadoes.
And now Caterpillar is here, in the community of its workforce.
"So many of the people that have helped us help communities all over this nation now themselves need our help," said Agoglia.
Washington residents allowed access to survey damage
According to Washington City Administrator Tim Gleason, homeowners will have to go through a police entry and exit point and only be allowed access from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday. People have been going in without permission, but officials said they had to wait for the utility company to say it was safe.
"Between this time and this time, you're going to be as safe as you can be," a Gleason said. "Please use common sense... We understand you want to gather personal belongs, but please do not put yourself at risk."
No one but Washington residents will be allowed inside.
"The volunteers, the contractors- that's not happening today. This is for the residents of Washington, Ill.," Gleason said.
He also said it's important for people to park as far over on the side of the road as possible to leave room for emergency vehicles. A curfew in Washington goes into effect from 6 p.m.
Around 1,000 homes were damaged when a tornado with winds of up to 190 miles per hours touched down on Sunday. One person was killed in Washington, Ill. Eight people in all – six in Illinois and two in Michigan -- died during the severe weather Sunday. Fourteen tornadoes were confirmed in Illinois and Indiana, according to the National Weather Service.
"We've learned today that there were [are] a thousand residents, a thousand homes, that have been affected by this tornado. So our 250 to 500 was way off. So there's a lot of work to be done," Washington Mayor Gary Manier said. "That's either leveled or shingles off."
One apartment complex, the Georgetown Commons Apartments, remains inaccessible due to structural damage. Residents are not allowed inside.
"We do not want another person hurt from this tornado," Gleason said.
An official from Ameren said the utility company has restored power to all but 5,500 homes and businesses that still have the ability to receive it in Pekin and Washington.
RED CROSS SHELTERS
The Red Cross is mobilizing operations out of the Greater Chicago Region and Peoria chapters to respond. Two shelters are open in the Chicago area, one in southern Cook County and another in Grundy County. In addition, four more shelters are open in central Illinois where the communities of Washington and Pekin were hit hard. Locations include:
- New Community Church - 14801 Lincoln Ave. in Dolton
- Coal City High School – 655 W. Division St. in Coal City
- Crossroads United Methodist Church – 1420 N. Main St in Washington
- Evangelical United Methodist Church – 401 Main St in Washington
- First United Methodist Church – 154 E. Washington St in East Peoria
- Avanti's Dome – 3105 Griffin Avenue in Pekin