avatarMichelle Teheux



You Never Think An EF-4 Tornado Will Hit Your Town

It devastated my community 10 years ago today

Photo by Greg Johnson on Unsplash

Everyone around here remembers how weird the weather was on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. It was unseasonably warm and the sky just looked … odd.

I was enjoying a day off from my job — I was at that time the editor of the local daily newspaper. My city editor would oversee production of Monday’s paper. I did a bit of yard work since it was so warm, and then decided to take a relaxing bath.

Sunset on Nov. 17, 2013, in the Washington Estates subdivision in Washington, IL. (Photo by Harrie Teheux)

While I soaked, the sirens went off.

Now, in central Illinois, the tornado sirens seem to go off a lot. They freaked out my Dutch husband when he first came here, until I convinced him they were no big deal and we didn’t need to hit the basement every single time we heard one.

But the sirens kept going on that day, and it occurred to me that being naked in a bathtub upstairs would not be an ideal way to meet a tornado, so I got out and got dressed.

The tornado did not hit my house in Pekin, IL, but it did heavily damage many houses not far from mine — and it devastated Washington, IL, a community within my paper’s coverage area where I had previously lived. The tornado also hit East Peoria.

It’s always odd when tornados often remove one wall, giving everyone a view into an interior room. (Photo by Harrie Teheux)

More than a thousand homes were damaged or destroyed.

As I realized this was the real deal, I hurried to the newsroom for what would prove to be a very long day.

My photographer happened to be in Chicago when the tornado hit here; he couldn’t get back in time to shoot. Cell service was spotty and I couldn’t reach my part-time photographer. So I sent my husband, a Dutch guy with zero news training, to go to Washington to take pictures and shoot video interviews.

Getting there was rough. Emergency services weren’t letting anyone in, so he had a long walk into Washington. He put in a helluva hard day for free.

The tornado picked up cars and tossed them around. (Photo by Harrie Teheux)

I divided my time between coordinating coverage and trying to reach my son, who had been visiting his dad in Washington. He was completely fine, but I didn’t know that for hours.

That’s the job. It doesn’t matter what you’re going through. You get it done. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have enough reporters, either. You find a way.

It looked like a war zone

EF4 tornadoes bring a wind speed of 166- to 200-mph winds. Thankfully, they’re rare, but that’s what my community dealt with.

You see news coverage of natural disasters all the time. The pictures my husband shot are not very different from the pictures you’ve seen countless times. But it is quite different when you are in the middle of things, looking around and seeing nothing but devastation where a subdivision you know very well used to be.

Utility poles were snapped everywhere. This photo was taken along Washington’s main drag. (Photo by Harrie Teheux)

A friend of mine lived in Washington Estates at the time. She looked outside, saw the tornado coming, grabbed her little girl and dived under the basement stairs just in time. Rescuers had to pull them from the wreckage. They were unhurt but everything they owned was gone, instantly (their cat was missing for a couple of weeks but survived). Years later, her daughter still panicked over locked doors. She always wanted to know she could get out fast if she needed to.

My friend showed me a video that someone took of her and her daughter being pulled out. I’m told it was broadcast on The Weather Channel.

People came together in thousands of small and big ways. This is Cat country. Some Caterpillar employees were having a routine meeting when one of them mentioned a person in need. “Why are we just sitting here?” one of them said, and they took some heavy equipment out to help.

More devastation in the Washington Estates subdivision. (Photo by Harrie Teheux)

In the aftermath, people shared tips about things I’d never thought about, like the best ways of getting broken glass out of lawns. Spoiler: There is no good way.

So many sad stories of lost keepsakes surfaced. One I especially remember was a family that had sealed envelopes holding letters a deceased family member had written for his children to open when they were grown. Nobody knew what they said, and as far as I know, the envelopes were never found.

Washington didn’t resume its monthly civil defense siren tests for some time; people were too traumatized to bear it.

Many were injured, but we only suffered three deaths. The tornado hit when most people were awake and many were in church. If it had hit during the night, the toll would have been far higher.

If you visit Washington today, you won’t see any obvious signs of damage. It’s a fairly prosperous town and they’ve had 10 years to recover. But nobody who was here then will ever forget.

I take the sirens much more seriously now. I don’t think I’m the only one.

I’m a writer in central Illinois. If you like my work, subscribe to me or throw me a fish! You can also find me on Substack, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Natural Disasters
This Happened To Me
10 Years Later
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