Washington IL tornado damage assessment starts as FEMA arrives

November 21, 2013 (SPRINGFIELD, Ill.)

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Five days after that deadly tornado outbreak Sunday, survivors will be allowed access to what's left of their property on Friday morning. Fourteen hundred homes were damaged or destroyed. Rain on Thursday delayed the process.

As night fell, the detritus of a tornado looked all the more daunting, but that didn't deter battered townspeople from a community meeting where they heard they'll be allowed back to their homes Friday through the weekend.

In the cafeteria another story of graciousness : Joliet Catholic HS football players brought a pasta dinner to their Washington IL rivals -- to whom they lost last week -- before the destruction

"They are incredibly resilient. Out of bad always comes goodness, and there's so much goodness that has come out of this terrible tragedy," said State Sen. Sue Rezin.

A benefit concert with REO Speedwagon and Styx is set for the weekend at U.S. Cellular Arena in Bloomington.

On Thursday, workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency began assessing the damage. It's the first step for many victims who need help to rebuild their homes and community.

A community meeting will be held Thursday night to hear word from state and federal emergency management officials about how their losses are actually being documented. It's a big process, but the preliminary part of the process is more or less done now.

More tornado victims are going to be able to go home for the first time this weekend.

But of course they won't be able to stay, not when more than 1,000 homes in Washington have received official preliminary designation as "destroyed."

"What we saw was 1,484 homes categorized as either completely destroyed or with major damage," said Jonathan Monken, Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

Among the victims is the family of Austin Wileman. Their home, clad in white, is obviously uninhabitable, not even a week after Austin's mother made the final mortgage payment.

"The worst thing of all is that my mom made the last house payment last week. Eighteen years, and finally got it paid off. Everything was going good, everyone was happy. Never imagined we'd wake up Sunday morning and everything was gone," said Wileman.

Federal and state authorities escorted Eyewitness News around some of the worst of the devastation.

Beginning Saturday at 9 a.m., residents and their authorized friends will be allowed in to salvage whatever may remain for them here and in other parts of destroyed Washington.

"I kept fighting for residents to get them back to their homes. Within 48 hours we were able to accomplish that," said Gary Manier, mayor, Washington, Illinois.

Volunteers will need permission from homeowners to help them as they access their properties. Government employees will not be authorized to help as residents pick over their belongings. Soon after the demolitions will begin.

"If it's destroyed I think it's pretty obvious that people should not be inside of it for any duration of time. But the minor and major categories, by definition, start with the word 'uninhabitable,' and people need to remember that," said Monken.

Washington High School students return to class

In a sign of normalcy, students at Washington High School returned to classes Thursday for the first time since the tornado swept through Sunday. The school's superintendent says they want to try to get students into a normal routine as quickly as possible.

With communications and electricity still sketchy, a lot of the students have not yet been able to check to see how all their friends fared in the tornado. That's why school district officials decided to start the high school schedule again Thursday.

"There's gonna be a lot of hugging and crying, a lot of that today," said Jordan Toyne, student.

Students returned to classes at Washington High School on Thursday for the first time since the storm. School district officials say it's important to get them back to their regular routines. Many have spent the last few days volunteering, helping tornado victims. They are anxious to get back.

"It's good to get back in motion," said Colton Myers, student.

"It's nice to be back at school. I'm excited to see my friends, just to make sure they're ok," said Kyla Huntsman, student.

Only the high school students were back at school, the elementary and middle schools will reopen on Monday. An emergency meeting has been planned Thursday night at the high school for local leaders to brief residents to address all of their concerns, and there are many.

Crews have been working around the clock trying to restore electricity to the Washington area, and volunteers are streaming in from all over.

Paul Thompson is here from New Orleans cooking up meat for a big bowl of chili, big enough to feed about 700 people. That's about how many he fed on Wednesday. After hearing about the tornado, he says he had to come do what he could to help-- and that means cooking.

"The devastation in the back was so bad. You know, we went through Katrina but this, this is worse than Katrina. This is bad," said Thompson.

Volunteers are arriving from all over offering help. Future Hall of Fame and former White Sox player Jim Thome toured the damage Thursday morning. His brother's home in Washington was not damaged, but many others were destroyed.

"I'm having a hard time with it this because it's so close to my home. This affects not only me, this affects the State of Illinois," said Thome.

"There's gonna be a lot of hugging and crying, a lot of that today," said Jordan Toyne, student.

Some local churches also were trying to address spiritual needs. A prayer service was held Wednesday at Washington Presbyterian Church.

"Prayer service is just an opportunity for people to come together. We want people to remember that God has not abandoned us, even though, sometimes, it feels like, 'Where was God during these things?' People ask that question in tragedies," said Pastor Rebecca Weltmann.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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