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Illinois

'Taking Care Of Each Other' One Year After Rochelle Tornado

It was a year ago Saturday a massive tornado bulldozed a 30-mile path through northern Illinois. It’s often referred to as the Fairdale Tornado because of the tiny DeKalb County town it nearly destroyed. But farms and neighborhoods are still being rebuilt all along the EF-4 tornado’s path. The Rochelle-area is making huge strides, thanks to the efforts of committed volunteers.

Brian VanVickle’s rural Rochelle subdivision looks like he and his neighbors have just moved in and are still waiting for a developer to finish the project. And in a way, they are. The Ogle County Sheriff stands by the large window in his living room and points past his muddy backyard at the path the tornado took, taking down his house, before moving on to others in the neighborhood.

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Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ
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One year ago, this view from Sheriff VanVickle's house would have been terrifying: the tornado came through here and destroyed his home.

The VanVickle family wasn’t home when the tornado hit – he was at a law enforcement conference nearby in Dixon when he got the news. His wife and children were out of state. But some of their relatives and friends who live in the tightly-knit neighborhood were in their homes. No one was seriously injured. Now, most of them are back in brand-new homes. Homes that are exactly like the ones that were destroyed. VanVickle says they’ve come a long way since April 9th, 2015: “We’re really looking forward to April 10th and being to truly get back to normal and move on and get the kids back to normal.”

As a father, VanVickle found the lack of everyday structure really affected his family during their six months living in a rental while their home was rebuilt. As Sheriff, it was structure and planning that got him through. He says the county already had strong emergency plans in place: the ones developed in case of disaster at the nearby Byron Nuclear Power Plant. That helped in the hours and days following the tornado.

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Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ
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This is what a year's worth of recovery looks like in one Rochelle subdivision

What communities are less prepared for is the long-term recovery. Jennie O’Rorke is with Rochelle Christian Food Pantry and stepped up to help her hometown. “More than having the good skills,” she says of her work as casework manager for the Ogle County Long Term Recovery Team, “God prepares the called, not calls the prepared sometimes. Hopefully he called me and is preparing me.”  

It took a lot of on-the-volunteer-job training for O’Rorke, who says she only stepped into the position “until someone with real experience in casework takes over.” Of course that didn’t happen. So she got help from people who did similar work in Washington, Illinois, another community devastated by tornadoes. 80 families in Ogle County needed help, from food and shelter at the beginning to emotional support to navigating insurance claims. O’Rorke says she has learned some very important things over the past year: encourage people to donate cash and gift cards instead of stuff that may never find a home. And enlist a trusted local organization as steward of all the money that will pour in to help your people. In this case, it is the Rochelle Area Community Foundation. Although the worst is over for most of the tornado victims, there’s still money to distribute for projects like landscaping. And there may be enough to seed a community emergency funding account.

O’Rorke says she thinks of the 92 year old retired teacher who gave ten dollars to relief efforts when she makes helps make decisions on how to distribute donations.

“I don’t want to have people avoiding me in the grocery store. And I don’t want to avoid people in the grocery store! And that kind of colors every decision you make, as far as these are my neighbors and I want to treat them right. Any time you deal with the public and you deal with money, there are going to be some people who are unhappy. You can’t let it stop you from doing what you do, but you do your best. I guess.”

O’Rorke says she looks forward to the anniversary of the event that has consumed much of her past year: she’ll spend it at a community gathering at Rochelle High School, followed by a party in the new house of one of the families she has helped. Her work has been one of the ways she has tried to give back to her community: she says people did the same for her when her 10 year old son died of cancer.

Taking care of each other. That’s the theme you’ll hear over and over during disaster recovery. Donna Page teaches agriculture at Rochelle Township High School. She was getting ready to lead a Future Farmers of America meeting at the school when the tornado hit. She and about 30 students watched the tornado move away from them, wondering whose farm would be hit next. Page says one student got the call saying his grandfather’s farm was torn apart. She immediately gathered the rest of her FFA kids and told them “we will go out, we will take care of him, we will help clean up, we will take food – whatever we need to do, that’s what we do now. We will take care of Colin.”

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Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ
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FFA President Kara Thomas and FFA adviser Donna Page in Rochelle High School's machine shop.

And they did. His classmates spent the next few weekends pulling debris out of the family’s fields. Kara Thomas is a senior and this year’s FFA president. She says as people who know agriculture, they all knew the family was ready to plant the year’s corn and soybeans, but the fields were full of tractor-stopping trash. She says “so it was always in the back of your head that you have to pick up every little thing you can, as much as you can, to make sure that nothing happens so when they get tractors back out here, nothing happens to the tractors and they don’t hit anything.”  

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Kara Thomas and Donna Page talk about the things the FFA cleanup crew found in fields they helped clear right after the 2015 tornado.

It’s spring. Donna Page and her students are more focused on weather forecasts than they used to be and they may jump at the sound of the monthly tornado siren test. But IT’S SPRING. Everything is new again. Page confesses, “Every once in a while, I will completely and totally creep and take the back roads home. And I’ll drive by and see they have rebuilt. It’s going to look different. The barn’s not there anymore. They have different siding on the house. This tree isn’t there anymore. But they have rebuilt. They are still there. Just the resiliency and passion behind that family is awesome to see.”

Back at the Sheriff’s house, Brian VanVickle is looking past April 9th, past spring time.

"Our biggest thing right now is just getting back to normal. Being able to walk down the street and say hi to the neighbors. Or have a cookout or whatever it might be. That’s what we are really looking forward to this summer is being able to do what we did in the past. We missed out on that last summer.”

VanVickle says in his neighborhood, April 9th will never be a celebration. But it will always be a time he and his family and friends will quietly get together and thank each other.  

Thanks to Vicki Snyder-Chura for her contributions to this report.

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