We live in a time when it’s too easy to get used to seeing pictures and video clips of various disasters from all over the world. In most cases we don’t know the people and haven’t been to the places affected. We shake our heads and think how terrible it is that bad things happen. We may even send a check to a disaster relief agency, but we move on pretty quickly. There’s always some new disaster in the news to grab our attention.
Many of us who live in the Midwest have even seen tornado damage firsthand, or have had to head for the basement when a storm seemed particularly threatening. Some of us can reel off the names of quite a few communities that have sustained damage around Iowa in recent years. Some were even classed as major disasters. I have seen storms, hidden in the basement from a few of them and know people who have been damaged by them, but nothing prepared me for standing in the middle of a debris path that sweeps from southwest to northeast across the heart of Washington, Ill. Only those who may have gone to “super storm” sites like Parkersburg, Oklahoma City or Joplin, Mo., can appreciate the overwhelming power that nature can unleash.
The level of destruction is incredible. Few walls remain standing and the few trees trunks that still stand are pretty much stripped of their branches. It’s hard to find a square foot of earth that doesn’t have something broken lying on it. In many places the broken things are many feet deep - a tangled mix of fragments of people’s lives. Clothing, broken lumber, toys, kitchenware, furniture, an occasional mangled car and more are strewn in random heaps that stretch for several miles. Much of the debris is covered with a fine mixture of mud and fiberglass insulation.
Storm warnings often seem to be over-hyped. We’ve all been through many tornado watches and warnings, but most don’t result in serious damage. If people had stayed in their living rooms watching the storm reports on TV (as I have often done) the Washington storm would have injured or killed many people. Lots of those TVs and easy chairs were in the debris piles. After seeing the damage firsthand, I’m all the more amazed that more people weren’t hurt or killed. For some reason, almost all the people in the estimated 1000 homes that were damaged or destroyed heeded the warnings and took cover appropriately. It’s a lesson that all of us need to take to heart. We live in a place where nature can unleash awesome fury. Even a little tornado that barely touches the ground can be deadly. Ignoring the warnings and not taking cover is like playing Russian roulette.
I was amazed at how rapidly the community of Washington mobilized to begin the cleanup. Heavy equipment was everywhere. Crews of people pulled and stacked debris for pickup by fleets of trucks. You couldn’t get near a street without someone trying to hand you bottled water, hot coffee, fresh gloves, a sandwich or even fresh donuts. Many of those people didn’t know whose lot they were working on. Many of the volunteer crews were from local churches. It was heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.
Our daughter’s family is going to be OK, thanks in no small part to the army of friends and family that worked for three days to box up their belongings and move them to safe storage until they can rebuild. Yes, we were very thankful this Thanksgiving!
(Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.)