Op Images: Small town shows its strength after devastation

12/20/2013 12:00 AM

12/19/2013 6:44 PM

Washington, Ill., is not the kind of town you normally expect to see in a dateline.

That changed with brutal swiftness on Sunday, Nov. 16, when one in a rash of tornados smashing through central Illinois turned on Washington, killing one, injuring dozens and leaving hundreds homeless.

There have been many scenes of weather-related devastation this year – from the Jersey shore to the Philippines – but the views of the destruction in Washington were especially shocking, and significant, to my wife and me.

Her Dad and his two sisters grew up in Washington and her grandparents lived out their lives there, in a little white, three-bedroom clapboard house at 606 Catherine St.

We visited there often early in our married life, and I remember it mostly as a small farming community of a few thousand people with a natural small-town coziness.

One half expected to see “The Music Man” leading 76 trombones around the historic downtown square on a Saturday night, with 110 cornets close behind, all decked out in red, white and blue band uniforms.

The town was founded in 1825 as Holland’s Grove, named after its original settler, before the name was changed to Washington in 1837 to honor the nation’s first president.

Its population has more than tripled since I first knew of it, to more than 15,000 people, and it has long since become a bedroom community for Peoria, the nearest city of any size.

“The tornado made a diagonal line across the community,” a spokeswoman at the Washington Chamber of Commerce told me, “but was on the edge of town before it made it to the heart of the square.”

The historic and picturesque square was spared, as was 606 Catherine St. I found a picture of the house on a website, and it still looks much as it did all those years ago.

But the real amazement and inspiration comes from the resilience of the people. “We’re going to rebuild,” said Mayor Gary Manier. “We have to.”

You can count on it.

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