Friday, November 22, 2013

Catastrophe, comfort, and everything in between

Two things. First, tornadoes are bitches. 

Second, I wasn’t sure if I should write about them and the devastation they caused – you know, the ones that slammed into the communities of Washington, Pekin and East Peoria last Sunday around 11 am?
Yeah, I figured you’d heard about them. 

My house wasn’t hit. My kids and I and our dog were safe and sound. I had a coworker who lost his home, and friends of friends who lost theirs or had damage. So why do I feel so affected? Why do I feel this overwhelming sense of – I don’t even know what to call it – sadness or guilt or helplessness – knowing that just a few miles away there are thousands of people literally with nothing but the clothes on their backs?

Just a few miles away. I think that’s it. 

We are glued to the television, radio and internet when any major tragedy occurs. A plane crash. A school shooting. A tsunami.  Doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s sudden, unexpected, and tragic, it catches our attention and makes us pause – for a few hours, a few days, even a few weeks. 

But this time, it hit home – even if it’s “across the river” – in places I rarely go because I don’t know my way around to save my life. I saw people LIKE ME with families LIKE MINE who I probably have crossed paths with in the grocery store, or the mall, or the movie theater. Yet I’m the same, and they are changed forever. 

I just saw a video of the F4 tornado that hit Washington taken by a man from the window of his living room. As it approaches, you can hear his daughter screaming in the background. The video goes black as he retreats to the basement just in time. Not 20 seconds later, he reappears to utter devastation. No walls. Just pieces of house and home piled everywhere, blowing in a gentle breeze. 

In a matter of seconds, those families’ lives were changed forever. FOREVER. In this case, that family will always be known as “Survivors of the 11/17/13 Washington, IL Tornadoes.” When that daughter grows up and is asked about defining moments in her life, she will say, “I was smack in the middle of a tornado that destroyed my house and my community.” What do you say to that? 

For those of us who were close but untouched, it’s a sense that’s hard to describe. It’s this uneasy, helpless, guilty, almost desperate feeling. It’s difficult to focus on work when you’re inundated with news feeds and conversations and reports of the latest devastation information and who needs help and where to go to give it, but since you weren’t “directly impacted” you know you have a responsibility to move forward and help cover those who can’t right now. You want to run to the site and help find every single lost pet and important memento before the rains and excavators wash and haul it all away, but you know you’d only be in the way and besides, you have your own kids to take care of.

You want to give SOMETHING but you don’t have much – which is why so many gave clothes. They’ll never disperse them all – they don’t need them all – in fact they’ve asked for people to STOP donating them. But I understand. For some, it’s all they can do. 

You want to donate money so you give what you can, knowing it’s just a drop in the bucket. You’re desperate to help in some way. Some offer their houses or rental properties. Some welcome displaced pets into their homes. Businesses offer free products or services or discounts – I truly believe – out of the goodness of their hearts and because they can. Photographers offer free portrait sessions to families who have lost all photos. Restaurants donate portions of their proceeds or offer food to victims and workers. Me? I tried to help raise money. I made a couple of blankets for a displaced coworker’s children. I tried to share information as it came in. Doesn’t seem like much. 

And at the end of the day, I pull into my garage and enter my nice, cozy house and eat a hot meal in the coziness of my kitchen and feel just horrible for doing so. Because others so close to me can’t. And they may not for a very long time. 

The news feed on Springfield SHG's webpage
All I can say is maybe, just maybe, when tragedies like this happen in our community, it makes us more compassionate people overall. I see the folks at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield reach out to the Washington Panthers team and fans when they could have just cancelled the game and gone on with their lives. I see the people of Joplin, Missouri – yeah, everyone knows Joplin now just like they’ll know Washington – giving advice and sending aid when they themselves are still rebuilding two years later.

Not that I think God had a hand in this, but maybe – just maybe – this is His way of saying, “Love one another – and don’t forget.” 

The feelings will ebb. The stories will stop. The coverage will diminish. But I hope we don’t completely lose sight of what happened here.  I hope we continue to support these communities even after the dust settles – and I hope that it makes us more empathetic when it happens somewhere else. 

“He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40: 29-31

Here are ways you CAN help (as of 11/22/13): Washington, IL Relief Information Guide



  1. My sister and I had to go to Washington today for a work thing. As we drove up Rt. 24, I watched her re-live Sunday morning all over again: passing minimal damage in one subdivision, then the next subdivision and devastation and realizing that's her husband's ex-wife's neighborhood and the houses are simply GONE, and her step-son is there. Her husband trying to drive while he feels like throwing up, everyone in the car is crying. They pull over on Rt. 24, climb a barbed-wire fence, run sobbing across a muddy field littered with peoples' lives: dishes, a Raggedy Ann doll, pieces of roofs, floors, walls. The doll was the hardest thing to see. They get to the house, but it's not there. The son, is not there. Maybe he wasn't here when it hit? Then they find his car in the rubble. Digging through debris in panic, in shock. They find out the son has been taken to the hospital already, that he has survived even though it doesn't look like anyone could have, in that house. Now, every day since Sunday has been a new part of the process. Finding two of the pets, then the third, all miraculously alive. Finding the family photos before the rains came again. The son doesn't remember anything at first but it all starts coming back to him in pieces, sometimes during nightmares and he cries. He's 22 years old, over 6' tall and he doesn't want to cry but he needs to and probably will for some time. He has over 200 contusions. He has lacerations, stitches, and some are infected now. Those will heal but he'll always have the memories. He remembered, too, what he was taught in grade school and followed it to the letter. Curl up in a ball. Cover your head. It worked. Entire walls were lifted around him, but he remained on what was left of the floor. He has received a miracle, a second chance, what will he do with it? He's only 22, so young to already have the pressure of a "second chance". He was walking the dog two nights ago and there was thunder - he had to go back inside. How long will it be until he feels he is really okay? I watch the videos people took as they lived through it and wish I hadn't. To actually go through it... we can't imagine.

  2. Maureen O'BrienNovember 22, 2013 at 7:30 PM

    Amy, you have hit on some very good points. I also feel "survivors guilt," but did not have those feelings about the folks in Joplin, MO or Moore, OK. They weren't close enough I guess. But I know some people in Washington, runners, my grad assistant, and others, and they have so much work ahead of them. I have no trouble imagining the mental exertion that will be required of them in coming weeks and months. And it is overwhelming. But I don't have to do it. Hence, the guilt. What made me so damn lucky?


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