Ill. tornado survivors say 'it never goes away'
PLAINFIELD (AP) — For Washington residents trying to reclaim normality following last month's tornado, the people of Plainfield have good and bad news.
First, the good news.
"I think it's going to get worse. But it's going to get better. That's the easiest way to put it," said Brian Murphy, the Plainfield village administrator.
"As soon as you start seeing some sense of recovery, you're going to see some minor setbacks. It's inevitable. You'll have some things you weren't expecting. You think you're making some progress, and then it'll seem as though nothing's happening. It'll go in fits and starts.
"So when you have those dark moments, those bad times, you're going to sense you're stuck in this morass, and that's when it's going to seem like it's worse. Then it's going to start up again."
Now, the bad.
"It never goes away. ... They'll never heal," said Bobbe Marion, who in 1990 survived the most violent tornado to strike the Chicago metropolitan area. "They're going to do the same thing we do. It gets nasty outside, and they're going to be afraid.
"How do you explain to a kid what happened? Your house is here one minute, and you come back and now the house is gone, and maybe the dog is gone, and all your toys are gone. And it thunders two weeks later, and your kid comes running in and says, 'Mommy, mommy, it's going to happen again.'
"They're not going to get over that for a long time. They'll probably remember it forever."
Marion and others who resided in Plainfield that day 23 years ago appear to remember everything about it. Right down to the minute.
"3:28 in the afternoon," Marion said recently about when the twister struck without warning.
The physical evidence of the destruction is long gone. It's been replaced by reconstruction and expansion that boosted the Will County village's population from about 4,500 then to more than 40,000 today.
The legacy of the tornado, which killed 29 people and injured more than 350 as it also rolled through parts of nearby Crest Hill and Joliet, appears much more permanent.
Weather-alert systems throughout Plainfield are beyond redundant. Village employees and volunteer disaster-relief groups are organized and trained to a level Murphy said he's never seen in two decades in municipal government.
About 60 of those volunteers, as well as two semitrailer trucks loaded with donated goods, headed to Washington to help with the recovery.
"When there are these kind of events that happen, you'll see Plainfield there," Murphy said.
That presence traces its roots to a few minutes of terror on a sultry, August afternoon.
"Mother Nature was very upset that day," said Michael Collins, the Plainfield village president. "She was very upset."
Remembering the storm
As Collins and Murphy spoke on a frigid Thursday earlier this month, they sat in an office in the Plainfield Village Hall. The brown-brick, multistory building opened in 2004. Across Lockport Street are similar-looking strip malls of recent vintage.
But on Aug. 28, 1990, none of that was there. Just empty fields and what once was a doctor's office. Fortuitous, because the tornado roared out of the northwest and through where Collins and Murphy conduct business today.
The storm originated in the Rockford area and moved southeast. Not long after 3 p.m., a twister touched down near Oswego, located about 10 miles northwest of Plainfield.
Today, the stretch between the communities is dotted with subdivisions. Back then, the tornado gained momentum as it plowed through farmland. It intensified to F-5 strength, the maximum on the Fujita scale of tornado measurement, with wind speeds exceeding 250 mph. The Washington tornado was one notch less intense.
"It was just like somebody came along and mowed the fields and buildings out of the way," said Collins, a lifelong Plainfield resident.
More than 50 homes in Plainfield were destroyed. So were two of the village's more prominent facilities — Plainfield High School and most of the St. Mary Immaculate Catholic Church campus.
Marion, then as now a school-district secretary, was in the administration building adjacent to the high school when both were hit. She and colleagues took cover in a cinderblock-walled area that contained many of the district's historic documents.
"You could not breathe," Marion said about the moment the tornado struck. "You could not shout. You couldn't scream, you couldn't cry. Everything was being sucked out of you.
"And then it went quiet. And it was as dark as any room you've ever seen. It was pitch black. And I was sitting there, and I figure, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm here, but what happened to all those other people? I'm in here with a bunch of dead people.'"
They weren't dead, but a woman elsewhere in the building was killed.
Rebuilding a town
Within the first hours after the storm, disaster-relief colleagues from as far as Chicago were on the scene. So were looters.
"Two guys from Aurora," Collins said about the first arrests. "Human nature, I guess."
Also a part of human nature might have been the urge to flee the devastation rather than reestablish homes and businesses in Plainfield.
"There were a lot of people that did not want to rebuild at all," Collins said. "They settled with their insurance companies and just left the foundations (of their homes), and some of those foundations just sat vacant for years.
"But a lot of people wanted to rebuild right away, and they did. But it took a long time. Just like in Washington, subdivisions were gone. You couldn't even recognize the street."
Little by little, normalcy returned. Collins said even simple things, like getting gas and electric utilities under control, was significant.
Other signs of rebirth came in 1992 and '93, when the Catholic church and the high school reopened. Students had been attending classes in shifts at the former Joliet Catholic High School, about 10 miles away.
"As each little step happened, where something else was repaired, it came back," Collins said.
What happened next is where the Plainfield recovery might diverge significantly from the Washington one.
The population boom many distant parts of Chicagoland have felt the past two decades took firm root in Plainfield. From 1991 until 2007, the number of new homes constructed annually in the village increased from roughly 250 to about 1,400, according to Murphy.
The rebuilt high school now is known as Plainfield Central. The district has three other high schools, all opened since 2001.
The growth was substantial, especially considering the not-necessarily-great publicity Plainfield received because of a natural disaster.
"Chicago is known for Al Capone, Joliet is known for the (state) prisons and we're known as Tornado Alley," Collins said.
The onset of the Great Recession provided a growth breather. Ultimately, however, Plainfield is projected to have 120,000 residents, Murphy said. Collins estimated about 20 percent of today's population lived in the area when the tornado struck.
"There are not a lot of us left, but there still are some, and it's a kinship with us," said Marion, who now resides in nearby Shorewood.
Prepared for anything
The kinship of which Marion speaks might include the recent arrivals to Plainfield.
"The folks that were really impacted by (the tornado) are still very active in the community, but what's interesting is the community spirit that created has fomented and fostered and carried over, even to the new folks that have come into town," said Murphy, who has worked in Plainfield for about four years.
Other tornado remnants are designed to avoid the carnage of 1990.
Subdivisions are required to have more than one entrance, to better facilitate entry and exit of emergency vehicles. Extended cul-de-sacs aren't allowed, for the same reason.
The Plainfield Emergency Management Association and Community Emergency Response Team handle storm spotting and search-and-rescue operations. Each member of the groups is issued a binder of specific duties and instructions they are to follow in case of a Plainfield-wide emergency.
Their responsibilities don't apply only to tornadoes. The emergency plans have come in handy during snowstorms. They also were activated earlier this year, when the DuPage River flooded. The river bisects the village.
"If you were ever going to be in a place that was to suffer the same misfortune again ... are we ever prepared for it," Murphy said. "Because we've lived it. We've trained for it. We've overtrained for it."
"And," Collins said, "we got through it."
Both men appear certain Washington will get through it, too. But like Plainfield, they suggest Washington never will be the same.
Vigilance, for one thing, can't be understated.
"The thought that you get when you're complacent: 'Oh, that'll never happen here.' Well, it did, so you don't use that," Murphy said. "It did happen here. It had a monumental impact on our community. We tend to perhaps overthink as a result."
In Plainfield, that attention to detail includes weather-alert radios on each level of the Village Hall. Just in case someone might be out of earshot.
"You say to yourself, 'Really, do we need to have all these weather-alert radios?'" Murphy said. "Usually the response is, 'What is the likelihood you'll ever need to have those dumb radios?'
"Once. All you need is one."