The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
By Robert W. Wallace/Mid-South Chapter, American Red Cross
Washington, Illinois, November 26, 2013. The morning skies were calm early on November 17, no hint of the horror that lurked on the horizon. Susan Jefford and her son Joey were leaving home, looking forward to a day of fishing at a local lake. When the town’s warning sirens started, they were not particularly concerned. “The sirens go off all the time, but the tornadoes rarely reach the ground,” explained Susan’s husband, John Jefford. “But then the train noise started. It was like a train whistle, but very, very loud,” Susan continued.
Knowing that something serious was happening, Susan was intent on driving out of the area, but her car’s fuel gauge was almost on empty. She and Joey headed to Kroger to get gas. As they approached, Susan noted that the gas attendant was running across the parking lot, heading towards the front door of the Kroger store as fast as she could move.
The gravity of the situation did not register with Susan until she turned and saw Joey video taping what looked like a huge whirlwind coming straight towards them. They jumped in their car. “The whirlwind was so big and wide I did not know which way to go, right or left,” said Susan. “Luckily we went left, if we had turned right we would not be here today.”
“I was driving like a fool, drove right up to the doors of the Big R [grocery store]. We jumped out. The winds were so strong I could feel them picking me up. Inside, the electricity was off. Everyone went into the bathrooms, all the men in the men’s room and the women in the women’s restroom. I saw a work colleague; we hung onto each other, shaking,” recalled Susan.
When the storm passed Susan and Joey came out of Big R to find, amazingly, their car had not been damaged, but all around them was destruction. Many of the nearby houses had walls destroyed and what was left now looked to Susan like “toothpick structures.” Cars were tossed everywhere; power lines were down and strewn askew like giant strands of spaghetti.
It was eerily quiet, she recalled; there were no police cars or ambulances yet moving. People were standing around in shock. Some were crying. Others were simply stunned into inaction, recalls Susan. She sent a text message her husband John, who was at work in East Peoria: “Tornado by Kroger, we’re fine.”
Susan and Joey climbed back into their car to try and make their way back home. The journey, normally a 5-minute trip, took hours. Destruction was everywhere and more people crying, bawling, and standing around in shock. At one point someone told her “You can’t get in, everything is gone.” At another point she stopped to give a ride to a teenage boy who was crying and hysterical. “My family lives in here,” she recalls him screaming. He became more and more agitated as she tried to get through the slow-moving traffic. Finally he jumped out of her car and headed off across a field, towards what had been his family’s home.
At this point Susan sent another text to John: “Apartment gone, need to come home now, headed to your mother and dad’s.”
John left work and headed to his parent’s Washington home, which was not damaged by the tornadoes. He was crying, not sure what to do. Approaching Washington, people told him he could not go in there and this infuriated him. “How dare they tell me I can’t go in there; I live there,” John recalls thinking. He now realizes that they were only saying that the roads were blocked, and it was physically impossible to get through.
Finally, by a very roundabout route, John arrived at his parent’s home. “He was white as a ghost. Crying, bawling, he grabbed and hugged me,” said Susan who recalls him sobbing, “I thought you were dead.”
Now safe, Susan and John had to think about what to do next. The only clothes they had were those that they were wearing. Thankfully, they did have their vehicles. Everything else was either blown away by the tornadoes or still in the wreckage of their apartment building, which they later found was too dangerous to enter.
A major concern was for their 7-month-old miniature Yorkie puppy that had been left in the apartment when Susan and Joey left that fateful morning to go fishing. The outer walls of the apartment were destroyed by the tornadoes. Their puppy weighed only 2.5 pounds, so they could easily imagine he could have been blown away. Upon returning to their now destroyed apartment for the first time, and with great trepidation and caution, they opened the front door, called his name. Immediately, he came running to them, shaking all over. How the puppy managed to survive the ordeal remains a mystery. Susan thinks he may have hidden under the couch. Although physically safe, “something is wrong,” she says, “now he does not want to let us out of his site.”
Now that a few days have passed since the tornadoes roared through, the Jeffords have had the chance to talk with many friends and acquaintances who also lost homes. “One of the worst things to see is extended families, consisting of five or six households, who all lost their homes,” says John. They have heard numerous stories of people who had to dig themselves out of their basements where debris that was once organized as a house collapsed on top of them.
One of the Jefford’s neighbors made it home from a trip to McDonalds with his three kids just as the wind was starting to tear his house apart. His wife was on the upper story of their home, frozen with fear. He managed to get her and the kids down to the lowest point of their house just before it was blown away, saving their lives. Another neighbor quickly put his one- and two-year-old children in the clothes dryer to protect them from the flying debris. John says he hears from numerous community members that their children now wake up in the middle of the night to the slightest sound, scared and crying.
Many friends, disaster relief organizations, employers, and local community groups have reached out to help families such as the Jeffords who lost almost all of their material possessions to the tornadoes. The Jeffords now wear clothing donated by family and friends. John Jefford’s employer, Par-A-Dice Hotel and Casino in South Peoria, provided them a hotel room, and told him to take off all the time he needed. Likewise, Susan’s Employer, Therapy Management Corporation, allowed her time off. They now call on a daily basis to check on her and John and offer additional assistance. “They have been wonderful and are like family,” said Susan.
The Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) set up in Washington has also been of great use to John and Susan. “It was wonderful,” said John, who shared that he had spent around $150 in gas running around trying to get assistance immediately after the storm, but at the MARC he could interact with many different relief organizations, government agencies, and community groups all in one place. “The Red Cross has done a good job in keeping everything under control. Their registration process keeps things organized,” said John.
The MARC is a centralized place where the Red Cross and other community agencies come together to offer assistance to families affected by the tornadoes. With one stop, a person can complete casework for Red Cross benefits, get a replacement driver’s license, car registration or vehicle tags. It’s possible to register for assistance from the Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul Society, or cleanup assistance from the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and to obtain medical assistance from Red Cross disaster health and mental health professionals. Also present are the Tazwell County Health Department, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, Operation Blessing, Comcast, the Regional Office of Education, and representatives from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, just to name a few.
The Jeffords have now moved into a rental house. They spoke of their enormous appreciation to John’s employer for providing housing after the tornadoes destroyed their apartment, but “it’s so good to be able to go home again,” said Susan Jefford as tears welled up in her eyes.