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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: In an instant, lives turned upside down

It can all change in an instant. Life is like that.

We were sitting in the family room Sunday, trying to figure out who those guys were in the Buccaneer uniforms rolling over Atlanta, when one of our sons called to ask if we had heard about Washington, Ill.

The Frau’s head popped up. One of her sisters and her family live in the small community outside of Peoria.

He said he had heard on the news about tornadoes across the Midwest, and that one of the towns mentioned was Washington.

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I flipped over to the Weather Channel as soon as I heard the word “tornado.”

The Frau has another sister (despite being called the Frau, she comes from a large Irish-Catholic family) who lived just outside of Evansville, Ind. A little over two years ago, a tornado rumbled over their town and took their roof with it. Her husband, who was down in the basement, looked up to see the sky where a house had been.

Fortunately, their losses were only material ones, although they were out of a house for almost a year and their lives changed. It’s difficult for anyone who has not experienced something like that to understand the emotional impact, as well as the physical one, on families.

We tried to call the sister in Washington, but the power was off. As the afternoon progressed, the flashes of news on the tube got progressively worse. Adding to our concern was her brother-in-law, who was just home from major surgery and possibly alone.

I went on the computer, and there were messages on Facebook from a nephew, who said he believed everyone was all right but he wasn’t sure.

The first pictures on TV showed a devastated Washington, a tiny bedroom and farming community of about 15,000 a few miles east of Peoria. Later that evening, again on the computer, the Frau’s sister sent a message.

Part of it reads, “I was at work in the bank when this happened. We were told to go next door to the back of the Walmart. I managed to text Birkett (her husband) who said he could hear the sirens going off outside. After about 30 minutes we got an all clear, but the cell towers were apparently down and we were out of contact.

“I started driving back, but there was devastation everywhere. I think the tornado must have hit less than a tenth of a mile from our house, but it is still standing and we are all right.

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On Monday, there were more pictures of damage from the storm that had come through in seconds, leaving more than 500 homes damaged or destroyed and several lives lost.

You think about what that must mean to such a small community. Washington is middle America. Its residents are faced with the same mean times and insecurity that looms everywhere.

Now, much of your town lies in ruins, it is the end of November and turning colder and you have the holidays to face — a change that happened in just a few terrifying seconds and well after the tornado “season” should have passed.

Washington will recover, just as other towns and cities have recovered from disasters in the past.

But it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, and your heart goes out to all of those towns in the Midwest whose lives changed in only seconds on a Sunday afternoon in November.

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