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Article updated: 11/19/2013 6:13 AM

Editor's parents find their Washington, Ill., home in ruins

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WASHINGTON, Ill. -- My parents' house is a crumbling, debris-filled shell with no roof, their Jeep is crushed and my dad's Ford Ranger is in a front yard across the street.

Bob and Marianne Riopell live in Washington, where an apparent EF-4 tornado ripped through hundreds of homes as if they were made of paper. The local congressman, U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria, expressed disbelief more people hadn't died.

My parents were never in physical danger. When the tornado hit Sunday, they were visiting my family in Springfield and playing with my daughter. So we huddled over a lunchtime pizza, thankful we were mining Twitter and Facebook for information about what had happened to their house instead of what had happened to them.

I tweeted at Peoria TV reporters and sent Facebook messages out to high school friends I hadn't talked to in years, but specifics were sparse -- yet another display of the strength and weaknesses of the evolving social media landscape.

People posted photos of fields of rubble, but because any standing landmarks had been destroyed, there wasn't a way to find out exactly where the damage was.

My mom wouldn't let my dad and I drive the hour north to check things out until she heard a neighbor had found their already old and ailing Labrador, Beau, walking in the street and given the dog to a co-worker to take to their farmhouse near the tiny town of Kappa.

Because of the dog, we got the OK. We took my cheap car instead of their much nicer car.

Given Peoria radio reports streaming through my phone, we were hopeful the path of the tornado had missed their house.

It didn't. My dad and I learned this only when we were on I-55 between Lincoln and Bloomington, when my wife emailed me a photo of the house taken by the dog rescuer. We could make out the still-standing chimney, but little else.

We picked up the dog and decided to try to get into town, where police were blocking most of the roads in. On a back road, a police officer was hesitant to let us by even though I told him my dad lived there and didn't know if his house was standing.

I told him we were just going to the big Methodist church nearby. Lying to a police officer about going to church is probably something for which I'll need to repent.

We parked a mile or so from the house and walked there, asked by people on the way about shelter and transportation options, but we had no answers for them. Pink insulation from the gutted houses and apartment buildings stuck in trees, making them look like the Truffala trees in Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax."

"OK" was spray painted on the house and the cars because emergency workers had already searched them. We heard later that somehow my dad had made it onto a list of missing people.

We dug through the house a little to save some of my mom's rings and some photos, a problem a lot of people in my millennial generation may never have because our memories are largely backed up in Google's or Apple's clouds. We agreed there was no logical reason for the dog to have survived.

A Sun-Times photographer took our picture, which was great, because I've always wanted to be in the newspaper.

The walk back was mostly lit by the spinning, colored lights of fire trucks, and the dog was waiting patiently for us in the back seat of the car.

The outpouring of support and offers to help from friends and family has been overwhelming, and my parents are tough people who've pushed through more mundane challenges and will get through this, too.

Our walk through the neighborhood was an important reminder that the outcome for them could have been much worse and not everyone is lucky enough to have the deep support system my family does. So anyone interested in helping people in the wide swath of tornado damage from southern Illinois to the south suburbs of Chicago can find good ways to help online.

That house is full of memories, but my dad took pleasure in bragging the furniture he built mostly survived the storm intact. So I know he'll have a good time helping build the next home.

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