A little holiday cheer — from one Washington community to another — made its way Thanksgiving morning to a central Illinois town ripped apart by a tornado.
Last Thursday, when many residents here were preparing their turkey dinners, Washington Fire Chief Bill Halmich, Firefighter Larry Schmitt and 2013 Washington Fair Chairman Al Behr hopped into a truck filled with donations for the townspeople of Washington, Ill.
The other Washington, as the men referred to it, is still struggling to recover from an EF4 tornado that ripped through its community Nov. 17.
Chief Halmich said he had followed the news reports on the tornado’s impact and aftermath, but still couldn’t believe the damage they saw when they drove into town.
“It’s total devastation,” Halmich told The Missourian. “You hear people talk about an EF5, like what happened in Joplin, and this was an EF4, but really what’s the difference? The damage was unreal.”
The men dropped off new in-package socks and underwear, a real necessity sometimes overlooked after a disaster, Behr said, as well as coats, boots and even teddy bears collected in a drive sponsored by the Fair Board and the Washington Area Chamber of Commerce.
Behr said longtime Fair Board member Lynn Stewart grew up in Washington, Ill., and she helped get the collection going.
Halmich said the Washington Fire Department also was eager to help out and offered to transport the donations.
The donations were taken to an assisted care facility, The Villas of Holly Brook, which was completing its licensing paperwork at the time of the tornado and had not yet opened. It has since become a temporary shelter for people in need of a place to stay, a meal and a drop-off site for donations.
Halmich and Behr said there are many similarities between the two towns in addition to the same name. Washington, Ill., is located in the central part of the state, just east of the Illinois River, and has a population of roughly 15,000 people.
In comparison, Washington, Mo., sits on the Missouri River and has between 14,000 and 15,000 residents.
“It seems like a really tight-knit community, just like we have here,” said Behr. “We were just happy to be able to do something.”
The donations delivered last week are just the start of the community outpouring from Washington, Mo.
School District Collection
The Washington School District has collected more than $1,800 in just three days to help students impacted by the tornado.
School officials said Washington West Elementary led the way with over $600 in donations and then a “generous gift” from First State Community Bank helped the district eclipse the $2,000 mark.
“We share the same name and are similar in size,” said Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer. “A disaster like this could have easily happened in our community. It was a natural response to want to help other Washingtonians.”
Catholic Schools Pitch In
Local Catholic schools and parishes also are collecting gift cards and cash donations to aid the 90 families in St. Patrick School and Church in Washington, Ill., who lost everything when the tornado hit.
That drive is being conducted by Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School and Parish, St. Francis Borgia Grade School and Parish, St. Gertrude Grade School and Parish and St. Francis Borgia Regional High School.
Our Lady of Lourdes students also are making more than 500 ornaments to send to those displaced families.
“We just want to spread some holiday cheer to those who lost so much, including all of their Christmas decorations,” said Rick Danzeisen, OLL principal.
Danzeisen, whose daughter lives in nearby Peoria, Ill., will personally deliver the money, gift cards and ornaments the weekend of Dec. 14-15. He also plans to attend Mass at St. Patrick Church.
“I know we’ve collected about $1,400 so far here at Lourdes and Borgia high school had over $2,500,” Danzeisen said. “The other schools are collecting too, so I think we’ll have quite a big donation for them when we’re done.”
People may still drop off cash donations and gift cards at any of the participating schools until Dec. 12.
Orange Leaf in Washington also is supporting the schools’ effort and will host a fund-raiser this Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m.
Chief Halmich said his department, along with the Chamber and Fair Board, are still collecting donations as well — preferably gift cards and cash — which can be dropped off at the Chamber office, 323 W. Main St.
Halmich said damage reports are still coming in, but approximately 490 houses were destroyed in the tornado, including seven homes of local firemen, and some 120 people were injured and there was at least one death.
Recovery, he said, is being hampered by the cold winter weather.
From an emergency management standpoint, Halmich said he plans to get a full report of the damage, response and recovery efforts in the event if something like that ever happens here.
“It seems many people heeded the warning, which was good, and that doesn’t always happen,” he said.
On his Thanksgiving visit, Halmich also visited one of the firehouses and presented a resolution offered by the members of the Washington Volunteer Fire Company here to the members of the Washington, Ill., Fire Department, out of a sense of solidarity and respect.
Halmich said both fire departments are all-volunteer, dedicated to the support of its citizens and its community.
“We talked to two paramedics and a fireman, and we told them, ‘Whatever you need, we’re here to support you.’ ”