I drove down to Washington, IL, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to pay an unannounced visit to Rich and Mary Lou – because there’s nothing like surprise guests dropping in the day before Thanksgiving to lift your spirits after your house has been destroyed in a devastating tornado.
Since the loss of their home, they have been staying with their son, Derek, and his wife, Sara, who also live in Washington, IL. On the way into town, I was stopped at a police check-point and forced to demonstrate that I am a beloved dental professional, and not a looter or a citizen journalist hoping to score some sweet pics for my “news” blog.
Anyway, about halfway through my illustration of Stage Four periodontal disease, the cops decided that I could not possibly be there to steal stereos, and they let me through.
I rang the doorbell of Derek’s neat ranch home, in a neighborhood that showed no obvious signs of wind damage. Closer inspection did reveal a tree on top of his house, and several homes had blue tarp covering sections of their roof. On the whole, though, the neighborhood was intact, and Derek’s house, undamaged.
After recovering from their surprise at my unexpected arrival, Rich and Mary Lou did their best to appear delighted by the house call. Rich was leaning on a single crutch, nursing an injury sustained not during the tornado, but during the cleanup almost a week later.
While ambling through the rubble that had been their garage, Rich tripped on the over-head garage door opener (technically now an under-foot garage door opener) and broke his kneecap. He had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for later that same afternoon, and they expect he’ll require surgery to repair the fracture.
Other than that, they both appeared well. (Mary Lou confessed that one of the most significant finds, as they searched through the flotsam of their vanished house, was her cosmetic case. They also found her jewelry box with her wedding band, but I got the distinct impression that this paled next to the recovery of the cosmetic case.)
After we unloaded the hampers and baskets full of gifts and notes, Mary Lou and I took a drive to the site of her (former) house a mere five blocks away. Within a block, we came upon houses with missing roofs and walls. In two blocks, severe damage was obvious everywhere, and by the time we had gone three blocks, we were driving through a wasteland… a field of rubble. Not one house was left standing.
“Turn down this street… I think,” said Mary Lou uncertainly. They had lived in Washington for less than a year, and, with no landmarks, it she was having trouble finding the way to her own house.
“Ok, yes,” she said. “This is right. See? They’ve put a street sign back up there,” and she pointed to a bent sign, reading, “Magnolia.”
Everyone had pushed debris out onto the curb, in front of their property, for a scheduled pickup by the industrious folks at FIMA, who had – to the immense surprise of no one – fallen far behind. The piles stretched down both sides of the street, like raked leaves, only these were piles of shingles and door handles.
“This is our house,” Mary Lou said, but, then, “No. No, it isn’t! Oh drat! Everything looks the same now that it’s all blown down.” She scanned the street and pointed to a patch of wreckage about four driveways down. “There we are. Those are our cars where the garage used to be.”
Looking up the street, I made out two cars, one leaning against, and partially on top of, the other. Surrounding the cars were a dozen young people – volunteers, who came from as far away as Chicago to help with the cleanup.
As we parked the car and walked up the driveway, one of them asked Mary Lou, “Do you collect baseball cards?” He held up a handful of slightly damp cards.
“Oh, my yes,” gushed Mary Lou. “Rich does! Oh, this is just going to make his day!” She gratefully accepted the soggy trading cards. “We keep finding the strangest things,” she said, turning to me. “My enormous, brand-new clothes dryer has completely vanished…probably fell out of the sky onto Munchkin Land…but here we find Rich’s baseball cards.”
Mary Lou and I looked around the devastated lot. Up and down the street, nothing stood taller than a sidewalk. The two cars were all that marked this as the site of their home. She pointed to a hole in the deck.
“That is the stairway leading down into the basement,” she sighed. “That’s where we hid. When it was over, we couldn’t get back out. We were trapped down there by the wreckage strewn on top of the stairwell. We had to wait until a neighbor came and cleared it away and put a ladder down to get us out.”
And then she told me their story, and this, as closely as I can recall, is how it goes.
“It was a Sunday, about maybe ten o’clock in the morning, and it was sunny and beautiful. I told Rich that, when it’s warm like this, at this time of year, you worry about what the weather might do. I guess I was right.
“Derek and his family were at church, and we were at home, when, all of a sudden, we received a mass text message alert, warning us about the weather. The message said to take shelter immediately, but we didn’t know what to think, because it really was such a beautiful day. Then we heard the sirens go off, and we decided to go down into the basement. Better safe than sorry, right?
“We looked for our cat, Panda, but she’s skittish and tends to hide. When we couldn’t find her, we went downstairs alone – again, assuming we were just being overly cautious, ourselves.
“We had been down there for maybe ten minutes when the whole house started to shake. Huddled together in a closet under the stairs, the noise was incredible and we felt the whole structure vibrate violently, as if a train was steamrolling overhead. We heard things flying around, the sound of glass shattering and heavy objects crashing into other heavy objects.
“It lasted for just 20 or 30 seconds – the longest of my life – before it got quiet again.
“When we emerged from the closet, the electricity was out, but the light coming in through the window wells was enough to see by. We found the stairwell blocked, tried not to panic, and settled in to wait for rescue.
“After about 15 minutes, we heard a shout from above. ‘Is there anybody down there?’
“It was our neighbors, and they were able to lower a ladder and get us out. Then, they went on, going house to house with their ladder, getting people out of their basements.
“Nobody was hurt. Isn’t that amazing? There was one man in town that was killed. Derek said the poor man was sucked right up out of his basement. He won’t tell me anything more about it, because I guess it was pretty awful.
“In our whole neighborhood, though, nobody was hurt. The house was gone. The whole neighborhood was just gone, but we had all received the text message alert and heard the sirens, and I think that saved us.
“A neighbor across the street had a car that wasn’t damaged, so he drove us out of the neighborhood to find Derek and Sara. We ended up, in fact, at the church where they had been when the storm hit.
“The people in their congregation had all gotten text alerts about the storm too, so they had all gone into the church basement. There wasn’t any damage done to that area, and, when the storm passed, everyone went home to check on their own houses.
“When Derek got home and found his house undamaged, he went next door and started to help the neighbor with the tree down on his roof. While he was up there, another neighbor passed the word along that his parents’ neighborhood had severe damage. He jumped down and started to run for our house.
“Since the weather had turned so nice after the storm, Sara took the kids for a walk after church, and they were already heading in the direction of our house. As they got closer, they saw the damage getting much worse and started to hurry. At the entrance to our neighborhood, they were stopped by an emergency responder, who told Sara, ‘You can’t go any further than this. It’s all gone up there. There’s nothing left. It’s all gone.’
“Horrified, she turned for home and, running and crying, she ran into Derek coming the other way. ‘They’re gone!’ she told him, sobbing. “They’re all gone. Everything is gone!”
“So, of course, Derek thought we were dead. He pushed ahead and tried to locate our house, but with the destruction, you couldn’t be sure which house was which. By the time he found it, we were gone.
“It was an hour before he came across the neighbor who had given us the ride to the church. ‘Your parents are OK,’ he told Derek. ‘I put them in my car myself, and I drove them to a church. They’re ok, I promise.’
“There was no electricity and no phones, but we finally reunited at Derek’s house.
“We stayed there the next two nights. They had no water or electricity, but we felt very blessed just to have a place to stay.
“We don’t want to be a burden, though. They need their space back. They don’t need us in the way, so we’ve found a nice apartment in a little town not far away. It will probably be a year and a half or maybe two before we can get our own house rebuilt. The insurance will pay the replacement cost for all of our things, but you know what? They’re just things. Thank God we’re all ok.
“We haven’t found Panda, yet, but she’s very shy. Maybe she’s still hiding – or maybe she’s in Oz.”
So, there you have it. It’s hard to find excitement after a dental career of non-stop thrills, but leave it to Mary Lou…