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The start of a new beginning

As tornado clean-up begins in earnest, Coal City residents move forward into unplanned future

COAL CITY – Refujio Luevano sat Friday on the back porch of his home on Berta Road, looking out at what was, until last week, his new metal pole barn.

But after winds that reached 160 mph blew into the Coal City area just shy of 10 p.m. Monday, the metal doors are now twisted and tarps line the roof.

The destructive scene is cruelly familiar to Luevano and his wife, Raquel: On Nov. 17, 2013, the family's home near the corner of Berta and Spring roads was one of the first homes struck by an EF2 tornado that ravaged the Diamond area.

On Monday, it was one of the last homes hit by the EF3 tornado that stormed into the Coal City area before it headed toward Braidwood. The twister indiscriminately ripped off siding and shingles from homes, shattering the lives of residents, as it wrought chaos throughout its 16-mile path of destruction.

The Luevanos moved into their newly built home just a couple of months ago. He never expected to be hit by a tornado again, Refujio Luevano said. As they huddled in the basement Monday night, he told Raquel what is suppose to happen, will happen.

"It's just money. I don't care about it," he said about the damage.

"Life, you only have one."

There was, thankfully, no loss of life from Monday's tornado – the strongest to hit the region since an EF5 tornado struck Plainfield in 1990, killing 29 and injuring more than 350 people.

But there was massive destruction to the tangible – homes, businesses, fields, one of the village's fire stations and the high school's athletic complex, all part of the 884 properties in Coal City to sustain damage. It was severe enough for Gov. Bruce Rauner to declare Grundy County a state disaster area.

An assessment done Thursday found 349 damaged properties are habitable, 375 are habitable with repairs needed, 106 are uninhabitable and 54 are lost completely. In nearby Braidwood several homes and businesses were damaged too.

That's the obvious, though. Harder to see are the invisible holes and bruises to people's souls and psyches.

There is exhaustion after repeated nights of little sleep. The mental strain of determining everything from where to stay to if insurance will cover the losses. The emotional toll of losing so much in just seconds.

Carin George said her family was just tired. Carin, her boyfriend Garii Paap, and his daughter visited Friday the multi-agency resource center at St. Mary Assumption Parish. Their home was destroyed; Garii and his daughter survived only by heading to the crawl space.

"We're done," George said. "Yesterday, we all had our major breakdowns. We were all crying, arguing, hugging. I think it set in."

Coal City Mayor Terry Halliday said he reminded staff that many are getting weary.

"People are running out of the adrenaline they've had for four days," he said Friday. "People have got to vent. I tell [relief workers] to stay positive. People are going to realize what has happened and going to get depressed."

Still, he has hope. He saw neighbors helping pick up debris. Volunteers organized into teams. Banks, businesses and other communities are pitching in on relief efforts. He praised Diamond Mayor Terry Kernc, who in 2013 was the one leading her town through a tornado's destructive aftermath, for offering unconditional support.

"The attitude of the community has been unbelievable, and the amount of volunteers walking the streets is incredible," Halliday said Friday.

Donations amid the debris

Large metal jaws bit Friday into what was left of the trees that once stood in the yard of Robert and Ruth Tomlinson's Pheasant Lane home as machine operators from "D" Construction in Coal City grabbed debris and loaded it into trucks to be hauled away.

"Do you hear that sound?" Ruth Tomlinson asked one of the boys standing next to her. "That's what it sounded like when they were coming down."

She left Morris at 9:15 p.m. Monday after finishing work at Big R and made it home just before the tornado struck the house – which, along with the family's cars and recreational vehicle, are gone.

"I cry every time I pull up to it," she said. "This is the home we've had for 20 years."

Despite the despair that followed, Ruth Tomlinson said the response has been wonderful.

"People are just so welcoming. They say, 'Come into our house, what do you need?'' she said. "People I don't even know tell me they are praying for me."

The generosity has been bestowed in multiple forms: As of 1 p.m. Saturday, $24,000 had been donated to the disaster relief fund set up by the Community Foundation of Grundy County. Nearly 2,000 volunteers showed up Friday to help with the first day of mass cleanup efforts.

Photographs, documents and other important papers are being collected by the Grundy County Chamber of Commerce in hopes of reuniting them with their owners. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Coal City tornado families can get their laundry done for free at the Sparkle Laundromat, 692 E. Division St. in Coal City.

Numerous places – including the city of Joliet, We Care of Grundy County, Help for Hope and Coal City United Methodist Church – are serving as drop-off points for needed items like cleaning supplies and toiletries.

And the need is urgent: As of 9:30 a.m. Friday, the American Red Cross had provided 60 overnight stays, 2,234 meals, 450 snacks, 35 mental health contacts and seven mobile food trucks were helping feed people in the area, Joliet native and Red Cross board member Jay Bergman said.

Those efforts got a boost Friday afternoon when ExxonMobil, which has a refinery in the area, presented $50,000 to the Red Cross to assist with relief efforts. Second Line Supervisor Chris Caldwell noted that 45 to 50 employees were affected by the tornado.

"We're a family," Tricia Simpson, the company's Government and Public Affairs manager, said of why corporate leaders immediately approved the donation. "We're part of a much bigger community."

Lending a hand

Friday was the first official day volunteers were allowed in the village to help with cleanup work. Thousands – from businesses, organizations or on their own – came with the simple goal of helping however they could.

In the yards and fields throughout Coal City, wearing neon orange and yellow vests, they worked tirelessly in the rain to get items to the curbs to be hauled away.

"We have over 100 volunteers here," said Megan Borchers, communications manager at Exelon's LaSalle Station. "We have come to help our neighbors and our co-workers. With three stations nearby, many of our employees live in this area."

The outskirts were the focus Friday, as Mayor Halliday said several areas remain restricted from due to potential dangers. Many of the affected areas are older neighborhoods that have large trees more than 100 years old, and above-ground electric lines, instead of buried as in newer subdivisions.

Volunteers went first to Diamond Banquet Hall to be bused into the village, Braidwood and unincorporated areas near Spring and Berta roads. The hall served a similar purpose after the November 2013 Diamond tornado.

“I have to. You have to. There is no choice,” said Donna Wharrie, daughter of owner Warren Brainard. She noted the building can accommodate many but is located out of the way of other workers.

Ann Stephens and her 14-year-old daughter, Johanna, of St. Charles were two such volunteers.

"It's a better use of my time than what I would be doing today," Johanna said.

Cleanup also was underway Friday at the Coal City Fire Protection District Fire Station 2. About 5,500 gallons of water were dumped into the station Monday night when a tower at the back of the building bent and was pushed through the roof, puncturing a reserve water tank, according to Lt. Nick Doerfler, the district's Public Information Officer.

Crews dismantled drop ceilings and dried floors where carpet had already been ripped up. Crews will work out of Station 1 until Station 2 is repaired.

Volunteering continued Saturday, although they are asked to hold off Sunday. Starting Monday, more than 70 trucks from mutual aid communities, private companies and volunteers will begin a four-day initiative to clear the streets of storm debris, according to village officials. All storm debris should be placed at the curb by 8 p.m. Sunday as the coordination of multiple resources is only available for a short time.

Hopefully, the work done Friday and Saturday by volunteers assisted in that effort. Groups like Boy Scout Troop 469 – which put in a four-hour shift Saturday – did what they could to lend a hand.

Patrol Leader Ben Doss said he made sure everyone participated equally to finish the job. It was the first time he's seen the type of damage a tornado can do.

Doss' father, Tim, a Troop 469 committee member, said the troop accomplished a lot – and it was important to have the young men provide community service following a devastating event.

While Ben Doss noted he felt bad for the families, he also knew there was something else he could do.

"I'm definitely going to pray for them."

• Shaw Media News Editor Christina Chapman-Van Yperen and reporter Mike Mallory contributed to this report.

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