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Washington rebuilding, but no end in sight

Published: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 10:51 p.m. CST

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WASHINGTON – At an intersection in the middle of Washington, a quick listen usually tells Ben Davidson the town is bouncing back from last November’s destructive tornado.

“Just stop and be quiet. You’ll hear all the nail guns, the saws going. It’s pretty neat,” said Davidson, a pastor at Bethany Community Church.

Nearly seven months since the tornado gashed a path through Washington that’s visible as a diagonal scar on Google maps, people point to any number of signs of progress – once-massive debris piles are nearly gone, the bare wood of houses under construction is visible up and down that slash of land and, as Davidson notes, the sounds of construction abound.

But there is still clearly a lot to do. So how long does it take to put a town back together?

“My flip answer is going to be, it depends,” said Gavin Smith, executive director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence at the University of North Carolina.

The factors range from those that people likely think of right away, Smith said – the extent of the damage and the resources available – to those they might not, like what sort of changes a town wants to incorporate since it has the chance and whether the damage included key infrastructure like schools.

The short answer, though, is the work won’t be done any time soon.

While Washington’s schools were spared, the Nov. 17 tornado destroyed or severely damaged more than 1,000 homes. Three people died, two during and immediately after the tornado and one weeks later.

Mayor Gary Manier now looks for comparisons in other towns torn apart by tornadoes, part of what he calls “that new fraternity you belong to” – Joplin, Missouri, in 2011; Moore, Oklahoma, last year.

Harrisburg, Illinois, is another reluctant member. The town of about 9,000 in the southern part of the state was battered on Feb. 29, 2012. It happened at night, when people were in their homes, and six died.

But the level of property destruction wasn’t as great in Harrisburg. The process of rebuilding is just now about finished, said Roy Adams, whose construction company used $2.6 million in federal grants to rebuild or repair 45 homes lived in mainly by the town’s poorer residents.

“The housing I’ve done in the past I usually complete in about 14 months,” he said about other post-disaster jobs. “Since this was about four times bigger than anything I’ve done, I thought we did pretty well.”

In Washington, the mayor tracks progress in building permits and completed work. Of 1,108 homes destroyed or badly damaged, “well over” 600 have been issued building permits, Manier said.

But construction, after a long winter, is much slower. Manier said he knows a handful of families that have moved in after complete rebuilds.

Pat Tweddale’s home didn’t need to be rebuilt form the ground up, but the destruction was bad. A neighbor’s roof was torn off and thrown on the house. Windows were broken, rain poured in, and glass, she said, was everywhere. Thanks to fast-moving insurance and relatives who helped with construction, Tweddale and her husband were back in nine weeks.

As she pulled weeds from around a sign welcoming people to her subdivision, she surveyed a landscape of new construction.

“They just started this one yesterday,” she said, motioning to a basement that survived when the house was torn away.

Five businesses in town were destroyed, by the mayor’s count. But the pace of rebuilding has lagged. An Advance Auto Parts store reopened last month, but it was the first.

Washington also decided to make some changes that can extend the timeframe. One neighborhood that never had sidewalks will get them, Manier said.

There are also issues no one knew to expect. Even homes where people have moved back in are surrounded by soil that’s thick with broken glass and metal shards that will somehow have to be dealt with.

“Do we scrape it off? Do we just rake it up?” said Davidson, whose home survived the tornado. Among his church members, about 15 families lost homes or had them severely damaged.

For now, Manier said, it’s just important to focus on each small step. “I wish we could celebrate every front door that’s unlocked and people move in.”

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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