From what I recall the weather was fairly calm that morning. Nothing notable or standing out to recall. I cannot remember if it was dreary or sunny. I am not sure if the wind was blowing or if it was drizzling. It was just, nothing to notice. I was aware that we had a chance for thunderstorms but I didn’t think anything severe was really expected. I loved storms. Watching them roll in, seeing the dark clouds come across the hill and our pond, and seeing the wind whip around and spinning the treetops. It was mesmerizing. I would track the storms around our area for hours at a time online anxious for when it would reach us. This day however I was not watching and waiting. I was completely unaware of the dangerous system that would develop and hit later in the day and totally unprepared for the devastation it would inflict on our small community.
Brookport is a small rural town in extreme Southern Illinois sitting right across the river from Paducah, Kentucky and south of Metropolis, Illinois. No stoplight. No stop sign on the main highway (S Hwy 45). We had a bank but it’s now closed. There’s a small grocery store and a new convenience store, a funeral home, a small library and a few other little shops. There’s a park close to the floodwall in city limits and of course lots of little churches. We’re just a tiny town but I think most of us like it. I personally love living here and I’m never, ever moving away. Like, ever. Born and raised and staying and smiling. This is home. I grew up on South U.S. Highway 45 and lived on the property for 30 years before moving out to Unionville for the last almost 4 years now. The Ohio River is a few miles down the road. It’s mostly cornfields and cows out here. Everyone knows everyone, if not by name then by face. We have been through terrible floods from the Ohio River and a horrible ice storm just a few years ago that crippled the region and knocked out power for a week (even longer for some residents) but nothing could have possibly prepared us for what we would face a year ago today.
The official time given for the tornado is 2:20pm. As for specific times of actual events, I’m just not sure. I cannot remember. I know we had several puppies born by 1 that afternoon. I was busy messing with them and not really paying attention to the local weather. I’m usually online but I hadn’t been most of the day and when I was it was short so I didn’t have a chance to really catch any postings about anything serious headed our way. I put the pups back in with their mom and hopped online for a few. I saw something about storms but skipped over thinking it was just routine fall weather. I browsed for a bit then I noticed dark clouds over the hill on Independence Road, looking west. I told Vince and we stepped out on our back porch and looked up at the clouds. We could hear the tornado sirens going off in the distance but we weren’t necessarily concerned or alarmed as they go off any time a tornado warning is issued, which is several times yearly around area. However, when we looked up above us we could see the clouds moving, literally rotating. I have never seen actual rotation but this is the only way to describe the way the sky was moving above us. We went in the house and my phone is going off with Facebook notifications and text messages. At this time we turn the channel to a local station, WPSD, and saw there was a tornado on the ground in Brookport. Then our satellite signal went out and the television screen went black.
I did not panic at this moment. I was full of adrenaline and went back outside to see what was happening in the sky. The moment I stepped out it started to rain and I had to go back in and it was then that I started to really worry. I felt safer when I thought I had a little control over the situation, believing that by being able to see the tornado coming at me would have helped me get better prepared rather than it sneaking up on me. You always see in the movies how tornadoes are easily visible and never think about how many are rain-wrapped and hidden. The wind was picking up and getting strong forcing the trees to bend and the rain was blowing sideways and it was nearly impossible to see anything outside of our window. I was getting nervous when all of a sudden the chaos outside completely stopped and it was totally quiet outside. The rain stopped and the wind died down. I’ve always heard about the ‘calm before the storm’; when the air outside gets eerily still right before a tornado strikes and wreaks havoc. I was standing in our hallway frozen for a few seconds with fear and panic trying to quickly figure out where to put everyone that would be away from windows and anything that could crush them. Right as we got everyone up and moving the winds picked back up but not as bad as they were at first. It started raining again, and it was just, over.
I grabbed my phone and started reading through my texts. It was a lot of “are you okay?”, “What’s going on out there?” and “Where are you?”. Then the other texts began to come in. Texts telling about the homes destroyed, about the missing and about those both confirmed and feared dead. We finally got our satellite signal back and started seeing the coverage of the tornado path. It was surreal to see this town, my home, totally devastated. We stepped back out onto our back porch and looked up to the sky and all around our yard and it just felt different out there, the air felt thick and heavy. We jumped in my car and headed down Hamletsburg Road towards Mt Sterling Road. At the stop sign we were stopped by emergency vehicles. We saw the field across the road was packed with vehicles, people who had responded almost immediately to start helping find survivors and assist the injured. We saw insulation and remnants of what was once a home scattered all around: in the trees, in the road, in the field, everywhere. It then started to really sink in for me; this was real, this had happened. I had a feeling of dread deep in my gut. We turned around and went back home to watch the coverage on our local station.
Shortly after returning home we heard news about three dead in our area, two in Brookport and one in Unionville. This was the worst possible news for our community. Being as it is a very small town you are bound to know those who had passed away and we were on edge waiting to hear who those three were. I know for a fact that a lot of us that day were full of fear and anxiety while we waited to hear news about family and friends, neighbors and coworkers. Just a week before Thanksgiving and people were forced to start all over, some without any belongings whatsoever, some in the hospital recovering from broken bones, severe cuts and bruises and other injuries and some without loved ones who perished in the storm.
The three people from our area who lost their lives due to injuries received by the storm on November 17, 2013 were Kathy George of Brookport, Scholitta Burrus of Brookport and Robert Harmon of Unionville. One death would have been one too many but three was an unbelievable and overwhelming loss for our community.
The days that followed were very difficult for all of us. My first trip down Unionville Road traveling towards Brookport tore my heart out of my chest. Mt Sterling, Shady Grove and Dornbush Road all received severe and total destruction of homes and vehicles. Back on Unionville Road I was driving by the mobile home of someone I have known since I was a kid and as I drove by I see that the home was not there. It did not look like winds had torn it apart, it looked like a bomb had went off and the place exploded into tiny bits and pieces. I could not believe my eyes. I was crying so hard I had to pull my car over for a second. Across the street another mobile home was flipped upside down and would remain sitting there on its roof for weeks to come. Down the road from that a silo was twisted and mangled in a patch of woods. Inside Brookport city limits the destruction was shocking and made me sick with heartache. Neighborhoods were completely wiped out and were unrecognizable. The elementary school was spared and only received minor damage but right behind it homes were a total loss. Nearly the entire city’s roads had some sort of debris strewn across it. Insulation was scattered about and tangled in the trees. People were walking and driving around with frowns on their faces and a lot of us were in tears. This was a community in mourning and in shock.
It was incredible to see everyone come together nearly immediately following the event to help one another dig out personal belongings, collect food and clothes for those without and set up temporary shelters for animals misplaced during the storm. I have never seen such an outpouring of support like I did in those days after the storm. People from all over our area came to help out and remove debris. For all of the sadness and despair we experienced in those days I think most of us also experienced an extreme sense of pride in our community and residents. Family, friends and strangers all came out and worked side by side to lend a helping hand. Hot food was served to those who were homeless. Groceries, toiletries, clothing and toys were collected at several locations throughout the county and beyond. Everyone chipping in a little added up to a lot.
Now here we are a year later. 365 days have passed since the storm hit and every day I see more and more of our town making improvements and starting to turn in to the place it used to be. New mobile homes have been moved in, homes are being built, trees have been trimmed and flowers have been replanted. The feed store that was around for so many years is not there anymore after being destroyed and I really have to say I might miss that place the most. I went in there so many times with my parents while I was growing up and it’s just sentimental to me. It’s nice to drive through Brookport and Unionville and see everything returning to normal, the debris and destruction the storm left behind slowly begin to fade in to a memory. There’s still damage around town, bits and pieces to remind us of how far we have come from that historic day. Things will never be the same around here. When the tornado sirens go off now once a month for testing it makes our hearts flutter. Severe weather watches are panic-inducing for some. Kids are stricken with fear and tears fall when the alarms go off. We are certainly more prepared now. Day by day we continue to improve and I am so proud of the people in our small town.