The thermometer in my car read 37 degrees. Gray tufts of clouds skimmed over the blue, fall sky. Cars darted through town, late for wherever they were going. A few kids in coats seemingly unconcerned about where they were going dragged their backpacks down the sidewalks—by all accounts a typical November morning.
And then I saw the broken roofing shingle laying on the sidewalk in front of the high school where I work.
In the rush of a typical November, Monday morning, I almost forgot about yesterday.
There are people in towns all around me, while sleeping fitfully in a church or digging through the remains of a home, who haven’t forgotten.
Yesterday, the temperatures climbed into the sixties. Clouds rolled in early and the warnings and watches followed close. The voice on the weather radio echoed through the house, but my wife and I listened only halfheartedly as we rushed around trying to get both ourselves and our children ready for mass.
Rain came in splatters as I pulled the van out of the garage. My wife checked to make sure we had the church envelope for our donation. We did and we set off.
We were in the same mini-van three years ago, but the month was April. We weren’t
going to church, but to Disney Land in Orlando and we had been driving for hours. Somewhere in Tennessee, we stopped at a gas station for drinks and a bathroom. The gas station had a little antique-slash-gift shop next to it and as the kids and my wife browsed I heard the mechanized voice of the weather warning man speaking in the gas station. Violent weather was coming, he said. He issued his warnings.
The storms were behind us, though. We would have time; I was sure.
So we loaded up and I watched, through the rear view mirror, black clouds massing on the horizon. We drove a few miles further. My wife fiddled with the radio, trying to find more information about the storm and I searched the gray clouds above us for anything out of the ordinary.
Then my son, who was six at the time, said “Dad, I have to poop.”
We found another gas station and pulled over.
On the way to church yesterday, with the gray clouds over head, my wife once again searched the radio for news of the storm. She didn’t search long. On my daughter’s favorite radio station only a quarter of a song had played before the broadcast was interrupted warning that a tornado was on the ground in the country near highway 39, about 20-30 miles south.
Outside the van, the tornado sirens screamed.
Fourteen months after my son wanted me to stop in Tennessee so he could he poop, he was playing tee-ball and I was his coach. Tornado sirens went off that day, too. A
siren sat high on the telephone pole near the parking lot of the baseball fields. Boys and girls clamped their hands over their ears as panicked parents evacuated the field. As we made it to our car, I saw someone in the parking lot point to the eastern sky at what appeared to be a funnel cloud beginning to descend. Cars were lined up trying to get out. Some had given up the wait and were driving through the ditches.
The tornado never touched down that day.
Not that day.
In Tennessee we never heard the sirens. After my son was done in the bathroom, we got back on the road. We drove five, maybe ten miles, until traffic came to a stop on the interstate. An accident, we thought as emergency vehicles roared by on the shoulders. We were worried about the storm behind us, it was close to lunch, and the exit for a city called Murfreesboro was just ahead.
We took it and tried to find a way into town, but most of the roads were blocked–some by squad cars, some by downed trees, one by a burning vehicle.
Later, when we got back on the highway, we saw the place where the tornado that tore through the town crossed the interstate, very close to where we probably would have been had my son not made me stop.
The tornado did come back to that baseball field in my home town of Streator, Illinois. The tornado demolished a whole street of homes and tore and twisted the fences and light posts at both Southside Diamonds and the James Street complex where my son played tee-ball. The tornado clear cut the park next to Oakland elementary school, and tore through the houses on that side of town also.
It was my father, who was in the bathroom during that one. He heard the sirens, heard the radio warnings, and thought he had time. When his front windows blew out, he knew he didn’t and he headed into the basement as the chaos ensued.
My family and I were in St. Louis for the weekend.
The tornado yesterday was sighted near Washington, Illinois—roughly 43 miles southeast of my town. The storm was moving at 55 miles per hour and the weather radio predicted the tornado would be in Streator at 11:55 am.
At 11:35 it was barely raining, but there things—swaths of sopping insulation that I at first thought were giant leaves and pieces of roofing shingles—swirling high in the air then plummeting to the ground.
The hail came soon after. Half-dollar chunks of ice hammered my house and garage door. From the windows of my basement I could see the ice bouncing off the sidewalks and wet grass.
We heard the sirens one more time.
Three people died, dozens were injured, and entire neighborhoods were leveled in Washington, Illinois as what the Weather Services deemed an E-4 tornado rolled through. Another tornado (supposedly there were reports of 80 tornados across the state of Illinois yesterday) hammered the towns of Diamond and Coal City about 30-plus miles east of Streator.
Thank God that the tornado never did come to Streator.
Pieces of Washington did though. People in Streator made the Chicago news to show how that had found pieces of mail with Washington addresses as a sign with Washington Illinois on it.
Eerie, I think. Like Mother Nature was leaving us a message after another close call.
But my mind is on those who were not lucky enough to just a close call like the many I’ve had, but to those that bore the brunt of those tornados, to those who have lost everything and had to hunker down and hope and pray while the sky turned malicious and evil overhead.
My mind is on those in Washington and in Pekin and East Peoria, who also dealt with the storms. I’m thinking about those people in Coal City and Diamond, to those in Murfreesboro and right here in home town. In situations like this the focus is on the destruction, the physical injuries and deaths.
It’s not the property damage that’s indescribable, but rather what must have–and probably still is–gone through the minds of those poor people. For those people, I would like to remember and focus on the trauma and the gut-wrenching terror they must have experienced.
We can’t let that thought get lost in the rubble.
So I pray that maybe someday, possibly, in the distant future all of those people can one day have a normal Monday, when the thermometer stays where it is supposed to be, when the clouds are benign, and cars zip through the streets, late for wherever they need to be.
If you’re interested in helping out Washington or Coal City go to this link: Washington and Central Illinois Tornado Relief and Recovery.