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Monika Wnuk/MEDILL

People paint messages of hope on tornado-devastated homes in Washington.

'Down but not out:' Washington rebuilds

by Monika Wnuk
Nov 21, 2013

Just three days after tornadoes devastated towns in Central and Southern Illinois, residents of Washington are already taking back their lives, starting to rebuild and painting messages of hope on hard-hit homes. 

"Down but not out," reads the hand-painted message on one house.

The EF-4 tornado that touched down in Washington Sunday destroyed dozens of commercial buildings and hundreds of homes. Many homes fell flattened - no walls standing - a characteristic of the EF-4 classification. Gov. Pat Quinn has declared 15 counties as disaster areas where tornadoes damaged some 1,400 homes in all.

The Washington tornado and another EF-4 in Southern Illinois were the only two to reach that intensity in the state in November since 1950 when record keeping began, said meteorologist Thomas Skawski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Skawski and I traveled together through towns where tornadoes leveled whole blocks and left houses across the way untouched.  

“Violent tornadoes, like this one, generally account for less than 2 percent of all tornadoes that occur annually in the United States,” Skawski said.

He explained that although fall tornado outbreaks are not unheard of in the Midwest, when they do occur they usually involve very strong low-pressure systems and strong winds above the surface.

Kathy Carlson, a resident of Washington, was on her way to her mother’s house for an early Thanksgiving dinner when she heard sirens. She didn’t yet know that her mother’s home had been hit.

“Mom said she really heard a lot sounds, so she went down to the basement. She didn’t even get to an interior wall and it went right over.”

Carlson’s mom was locked in the basement for a short time until her grandchildren pulled her out from a window with minor scratches.

“It’s kind of like God was just right there,” Carlson said.