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Dana, Reese and Payton Leman

Leman family recovering from tornado in central Illinois

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MORRIS – Sunday, Nov. 17 started out like it usually did for Dana Leman and her daughters, Payton and Reese. Leman headed to a church near her home in Washington, Ill., while Payton and Reese were with their father, Chris, in a nearby town.

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“I didn’t know the weather was supposed to be bad – we knew that there were supposed to be some strong storms coming through but I had not heard anything about tornados,” said Leman.

When she left church at about 10:30 a.m., Leman said it was rainy and dark, but it looked like there was time for a quick stop at the grocery store. While walking through the store, the tornado sirens started to sound. Store management asked everyone to take shelter in the coolers in the back of the building.

Once they were sheltered, other shoppers turned to their smartphones to check the weather radar or make phone calls to find out what was going on, Leman said.

“All the alarms were going off on people’s phones that it was bad and people had heard there was a spotting of a tornado,” said Leman.

Because the store had working generators, the music playing over the speakers kept going in the coolers while the storm passed over.

“We really had no clue what was going on outside – we couldn’t hear the tornado come through at all,” said Leman. “Most of the other people that I’ve talked too, that is their biggest nightmare: when they lay down to go to bed, hearing that sound of the tornado going through.”

At 11:05 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 15, an EF-4 tornado touched down in Washington, Ill., a town of about 15,000 people in central Illinois. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado produced estimated peak winds of between 170 and 190 miles per hour.

The tornado was part of a series of storms that swept through the midwest last week. In response, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has declared seven Illinois counties disaster areas, including Tazewell County, where Washington is located. Officials with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency estimate that more than 1,500 homes were damaged or destroyed.

The line the tornado followed through Washington went about a half-mile from the Leman’s home. Dana, a Morris native, moved to Washington with her family about 2.5 years ago. 

When store employees let residents out of the cooler, people started running out of the grocery store to see what had happened. Leman heard from others that the tornado has touched down near her house, so she abandoned her groceries to get home.

When Leman turned into her neighborhood, using back roads because the main arteries were filled with debris, all she saw was piles of rubble and her stunned neighbors emerging from what was left of their homes in their pajamas, without shoes or coats.  

“I still had a house standing, but I knew it was in bad shape,” said Leman. “Looking down the street, it was just piles of debris – it was like what I had seen on tv, nothing that you can even describe.”

Sometime on the drive home, Leman got a phone call from Chris, letting her know that he and the girls were safe and had been inside at their church when the storms headed through. They arrived at Leman’s house about 20 minutes later.

“By the time they got to our house, [the girls] were very, very shaken because they went by a lot of their friend’s houses that were flattened,” said Leman.

The early stages of storm recovery have been understandably difficult.

Logistically, it’s difficult to get into the disaster area because of downed power lines and other hazards.

Shortly after the storm, Leman’s parents, Randy and Pam Sutter, drove down to help the family recover some things from her home, in preparation for living somewhere else through the winter and into next spring while repairs are being completed.

Leman’s contractor estimated that it will take several months to repair their home, depending on how serious the structural damage ends up being.

Emotionally, Leman said she feels guilty she is able to recover her belongings given that so many of her neighbors have lost everything.

“It’s almost a survivor’s guilt, I would say, that our family has, when we see a family we know very well that has nothing but we’re able to haul our stuff out,” said Leman. “Even though we don’t have a house to live in, it’s very hard to see that. It’s very emotional.”

There are several ways to make donations to help the residents of Washington during recovery efforts.

Locally, Town and County, Willie’s Supervalu, and Riverwood Bank will take donations in the form of gift cards that will be donated to Connect Church in Washington to be distributed to residents.

Leman said gas cards or Visa cards would be helpful for all local residents, since many are displaced and driving a lot further than normal. Residents may also need help covering deductibles or temporary places to stay while they begin to rebuild. Gift cards are useful and easy to distribute, Leman said.

“I know that through the Christmas season and through Thanksgiving, there are going to be a lot of financial needs,” said Leman. “I know this would be a huge help to everybody in the area.”

Friends have also started a website to help collect donations for Dana, Payton and Reese at http://www.youcaring.com/help-a-neighbor/help-for-the-leman-family-washington-il-tornado/108115.

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Kim Ukura
Kim Ukura has served as the editor of the Morris Sun Tribune since August 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris in 2008 with degrees in English and journalism. She earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2010. Prior to returning to Morris to work at the Sun Tribune, she worked in trade publishing. 
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