FEMA teams start work after tornadoes

CHAMPAIGN – As federal storm damage assessors started working across Illinois on Thursday, state officials revised the number of homes destroyed or damaged by the weekend’s tornadoes upward to at least 1,500.

Residents of hard-hit towns also started shuttling hundreds of tons of debris out of the neighborhoods Thursday.

But there were small signs of normal life that emerged: Some schools in the small central Illinois city of Washington reopened Thursday.

Federal Emergency Management Agency workers fanned out in Washington, eastern Illinois’ Gifford, Brookport in southern Illinois along the Ohio River and Coal City south of Joliet, Illinois Emergency Management Agency Director Jonathon Monken said.

Four of the 22 tornadoes officials now say touched down across the state badly damaged those towns; six people died.

As Monken walked through one neighborhood in Washington, he said it’s safe to say thousands of tons of what used to be homes will eventually be hauled away.

“Looking all around me, the debris mission is going to go on for a very, very long time,” he said.

But by the end of the weekend, he added, state official should have a better idea of how much damage FEMA is tallying, information needed to seek federal disaster assistance.

James Dunnan, the superintendent of Washington Community High School District 308, said several of the town’s eight schools, including the high school, reopened Thursday.

About two-thirds of the high school’s 1,175 students and most of its teachers and staff returned to Washington Community High School just to get back in the building, see each other and, if need be, talk to counselors, Dunnan said.

“It’s just kind of a re-entry, a first step forward,” he said. “The students and staff that are here I think are grateful to be back in here.”

Schools were also starting to tackle logistical problems. Though many buildings weren’t damaged by the tornado and the high school has full water and electricity, a number students lost homes.

“We’ve found out today that we have several families living in a hotel in East Peoria,” he said. “We will probably make bus transportation arrangements to go over there and pick those students up.”

Many hotels in East Peoria, to the southwest of Washington, have started to empty out, Holiday Inn Express front desk employee Gloria Ferguson said. Only three families from Washington were still checked in at her hotel, she said, in contrast to being completely booked Sunday and Monday.

Bloomington-based State Farm Insurance, which insures about a third of all homes in Illinois, has received about 3,600 homeowners insurance claims, spokeswoman Holly Anderson said. The company has started giving customers expense checks, she added.

“People can use them for additional living expenses,” she said. “Whether it’s getting them into a hotel, or whether it’s arranging to pay for rental properties.”

In the southern Illinois town of Brookport, where three people died Sunday, hundreds of volunteers were helping clean up Thursday. An EF-3 tornado hit Brookport with 145 mph winds. The town is just north of Paducah, Ky., on the Ohio River.

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