Volunteers flock to Rochelle to help with tornado cleanup
Hundreds in Rochelle for tornado cleanup
Hoffman Estates resident Lisa Creamer had planned to help out with a brush clearing in DuPage County Saturday morning.
But when tornadoes tore through the towns of Fairdale and Rochelle Thursday night, Creamer shifted her volunteering priorities.
Operation Blessing volunteer tornado cleanupStart location: Walgreens parking lot, 1080 N. 7th St., Rochelle
Signup time: 9 a.m. Sunday, April 13
Operation Blessing contacts: (757) 274-8650 (for homeowners who need help with debris removal); (757)-374-0944 or ob.org for volunteer information.
What to wear: Long-sleeved shirts, jeans, gloves, boots or sturdy shoes, and sun protection
"It's so close to home; why wouldn't I drive the hour-and-a-half to come and help?" Creamer said, as she stood in a Rochelle parking lot waiting to help residents clean up from the devastating storms.
Creamer was among the more than 675 volunteers who went to Rochelle Saturday to help residents with a cleanup coordinated by the Virginia-based faith-based nonprofit organization, Operation Blessing.
Eight tornadoes roared across northern and central Illinois during Thursday's storms, the National Weather Service confirmed Saturday. Fairdale was the hardest-hit community, with two people killed, 22 injured and some 70 buildings destroyed or damaged.
In Rochelle, about 50 buildings were hit by the EF-4 tornado, which had winds between 180 to 200 mph. It was a half-mile wide and remained on the ground for at least 28.7 miles -- a record path for that part of Illinois.
The outpouring of helpers in Rochelle at one point overwhelmed the Operation Blessing organizers. Pens to fill out the Operation Blessing safety forms and waivers became scarce, and organizers also ran out of Operation Blessing-logo T-shirts for volunteers.
Dan Moore, director of U.S. disaster relief for Operation Blessing, said the T-shirts are helpful. If county officials "see a team of people walking on someone's property and they're all in Operation Blessing shirts, they know they've come through us, and they're not just randomly walking through and doing something they shouldn't be doing."
Teams of volunteers in groups of 20 were dispatched throughout the town, where they approached homeowners for permission to do cleanup work.
"We sent out teams to five zones of the devastated areas affected by the tornado," Moore said. "And what the teams have been doing is removing the debris from homeowners' property and bringing it to the road. They're also then looking for people's personal belongings and things that can't be replaced."
Mike Price, whose family home was destroyed by the tornado, spent the last couple of days searching through the debris for personal items and vital documents, such as passports.
"I came out here this morning to get a few more items, and then all these volunteers showed up," Price said. "I had no idea there were this many people out here to help."
For West Chicago resident Julie Gum, who found out about the cleanup online, coming to Rochelle was all about priorities.
"I could clean my house, but it wasn't nearly as important as coming here and doing something," she said.
Gum struck up a conversation with Rockford resident Tammy English, who said she had friends affected by the tornado in Fairdale, including one woman whose mother was one of the two people killed.
"There's no other place I'd rather be right now," English said, after wiping away a tear. "Many hands will make for light work and bring hope."
Moore said Ogle County had asked Operation Blessing to be the lead agency to coordinate volunteers. While they are only working in Rochelle now, he added the agency's efforts could extend to Fairdale.
"Operation Blessing has a great relationship with state emergency management," he said.
For Cramer, being there to help echoed a sentiment from a recent sermon at her church.
"If you want to make a difference and persevere, you need to have the support of many," Creamer said. "Anywhere I can help is great, and it's amazing having all the people here."
Meanwhile, Fairdale residents were allowed back into the town Saturday to assess damage and salvage what they could. Seeing the wreckage up close for the first time since Thursday's storms left some amazed they survived.
"I thought my parents were dead," said Adam Davis, who hopped into his truck Thursday and raced along with the tornado in the hopes of getting to his parents' house and rescuing them before the twister struck. He found them standing in their doorway, frozen in disbelief, and grabbed them just in time.
On Saturday, he was helping collect what could be salvaged from his childhood home, now full of debris, its roof ripped off and windows broken.
"It's not necessarily the mementos yet; it's the essentials for now. One step at a time," he said.
One of the tornadoes also struck the Summerfield Zoo in Belvidere, killing an emu and a black swan.
• Associated Press reporter Kerry Lester contributed to this report.