'You just live in a new normal': Recovery from Naperville tornado moving slowly
First of two parts
Six months later, the scars remain.
There may never be a full recovery for dozens of Naperville residents continuing to struggle in the wake of a devastating tornado that tore through sleepy neighborhoods shortly after 11 p.m. June 20, leaving one house destroyed and more than 200 damaged in an area just south of 75th Street.
At least 11 people were injured and numerous houses remain empty. The tornado that raged for 17.6 miles claimed the life of an unborn baby in Woodridge.
You see the scars of that night on Fernanda Saez, cut up and bruised as she rescued her 9-year-old son from his second-story bedroom that faced the brunt of the sudden storm.
You see the scars in Katie Piper's backyard, torn asunder as her neighbor's house blew apart, scattered for blocks and embedded itself in unrecognizable pieces 6 inches deep into the ground.
You see the scars as you walk around Marc and Marie Whirledge's house, shredded by shards of razor-sharp siding and shingles.
Six months later, they and so many others continue to deal with slow-responding insurance companies, negligent contractors, supply-chain issues and a city government that's never grappled with the long-term effects of devastation on this scale.
They also endure nightmares and flashbacks of that long, dark night. They feel a sense of dread with every weather warning.
"I could say 'why me' for the rest of my life," Piper said. "But I try not to because it sends me into a spiral."
(Click and drag below to swipe between aerial views right after the tornado and six months later.)
'So fast ... so wicked'
The strongest tornado to hit the metro region since 2015 touched down near Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve and carved a path toward Willow Springs with winds that reached a peak of 140 mph. The sirens blared across Naperville at about 11:07 p.m. that Father's Day.
"It came up so fast, and so wicked," Piper said. "The longest two minutes of my life."
Piper and her family barely made it to the basement as the tornado hit Princeton Circle. On nearby Nutmeg Lane, Leandro Saez pulled his wife and son from under the bedroom door that ripped off the hinges and knocked them down, actually shielding them from the swirling mass of metal, glass and chunks of wood from shattered trees.
(Click and drag below to swipe between aerial views)
Marie Whirledge and 20-year-old daughter Maddy, also on Nutmeg Lane, sprawled on a bedroom floor as the storm passed. When they emerged, they saw a hallway and stairwell littered with debris.
After being told at about 3 a.m. they had to vacate the house because of structural issues, the Whirledges left with carry-on baggage filled with basic necessities and navigated yards filled with tree limbs and neighbors' possessions.
For the rest of a seemingly unending evening in the pitch black, stunned neighborhoods tried to process what happened.
"A lot of furniture from other homes, roofs from other homes, trees, everything piled up in front of my house and we couldn't use the front door," Leandro Saez said.
Piper smelled natural gas as she and her family left the house. She wanted to get as far away as she could to escape potential danger.
Then she saw her neighbor's house was leveled.
"I was in shock, truly," she said. "I remember screaming, 'Where are they? We have to find them now!'"
Her neighbors were found, injured but alive. Piper wound up at her nearby sister's house, staring at the ceiling unable to sleep.
When daylight revealed the extent of the damage, it was clear there'd be many more sleepless nights.
'Just in the way'
The response from Naperville and surrounding communities was immediate and effective as gas lines were turned off, streets cleared, power restored, windows and doors boarded up and other critical issues handled.
Then the swarm of contractors converged on the neighborhoods, congesting the streets and trying to persuade homeowners to hire them.
"We probably had 50 contractors give us their business card and tell us they could rebuild our house," Marc Whirledge said. "They're really just in the way."
The scene became surreal as some people showed up to help and others posed for selfies amid the destruction. Piper caught one woman in her backyard sifting through debris and pocketing jewelry.
The Naperville police provided extra patrols for about two weeks, especially at night.
"We kicked so many people out (of the yard)," she said. "It just became routine."
At one point, a man posing as a good Samaritan came to Piper's house with a chain saw offering to help remove downed trees. Two months later, she received a bill for $2,000.
The next several weeks became a dizzying race - a full-time job - trying to get insurance companies to send adjusters who became tougher to reach on the phone. Displaced residents had to find places to live.
"We keep pushing and pressuring everybody, the contractors, the city, the insurance company," Leandro Saez said. "But you can only go so fast with all the paperwork and the delays."
'It takes time'
Even though Saez immediately started the process of recovery, it took two weeks just to get an adjuster to his house. And the adjuster had to come from Texas because of the shortage of qualified people in Illinois.
The first night, Saez and his family stayed with friends. Then they moved to a hotel. Two months later, the insurance company approved a house rental, first for four months and then for a full year.
His son, Thiago, lost nearly every possession in the tornado, just days after his birthday. Thiago's school, Ranch View Elementary, stepped up to help, as did charitable organizations such as Bike Bald and St. Vincent de Paul.
A nearby restaurant, Little Pops Pizzeria, provided meals for residents.
"It was an army that stepped up to help," Saez said. "It was a huge operation, but it takes time."
Even though frustration built with every delay, Saez now feels lucky that work on his house began after three months.
His neighbors, the Whirledges, weren't so fortunate. Their house sat untouched until just recently.
They hired, then had to fire, a contractor - one of the 50 business cards handed to them - because of the lack of work done. The delay cost them weeks as they lived with Marie's parents.
Even though no work was being done, Marc and Marie stopped by every day to pick up mail and make sure the house was secure.
"We had to start all over," Marie Whirledge said. "It really put us behind. You're at the contractor's mercy, the supply chain's mercy, the permit mercy and the insurance company's mercy."
'A new normal'
Piper and her family were able to stay in their house until August but then left for three months as the interior was rebuilt.
She and nearly every affected resident, including the Saez family and the Whirledges, are working through persistent delays on window replacement because of supply-chain issues. With winter approaching, the wait becomes more unbearable with each passing day.
Some homeowners are simply choosing to sell for the value of the land. Others are dedicated to rebuilding no matter how long it takes.
The Whirledges don't know when they'll be back home, but they're glad to finally see the progress of a new roof.
Leandro Saez hopes to be back in his house by spring, although his son doesn't like visiting because of the memories of June 20. Thiago gets scared every time it storms.
Marie Whirledge believes she and her daughter are experiencing a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Piper still has nightmares and flashbacks.
"I'm not bouncing back as well as others," Piper said. "You just live in a new normal. You keep moving forward."
While the families praise the immediate response by the city and community, some say continued support has been lacking. As a comparison, they point to the efforts in Woodridge, where fundraisers have been held to assist the dozens of families affected there.
"You feel very isolated," Piper said. "While other people are putting lights on their trees, I'm dealing with no windows and a cold house."
'We all cheer'
Nearby residents Kristy Kennedy and Kelly Dougherty created a Facebook support group that's been helpful for people in need of anything from a tarp to yard cleanup or a meal. They're also serving as liaisons to the city to voice the issues still being faced.
They hope to be fundraising for tornado victims by early next year.
City officials say they understand the frustration in the neighborhoods and acknowledge the difficulty in assessing resident needs. They've tried to expedite the permitting process - waiving fees is being considered if it directly benefits homeowners and not the insurance companies - and they suspended charging residents for utilities.
The city also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars since the tornado placing electric lines underground to curb the possibility of future outages and eliminate the danger of fallen lines.
Mayor Steve Chirico, who lives nearby, said he often drives through the neighborhoods. He insists the city will continue working to find ways to assist residents.
"A big part of this right now is understanding what their challenges are, and that's the missing piece of information we need to get," he said. "After all the progress we initially made from our response, I have not seen that same type of momentum in the neighborhood today," Chirico said. "We need to understand why."
The city is taking a key step in helping residents by hosting a needs assessment open house from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at Ranch View Elementary School. People are encouraged to attend and fill out a survey to determine the funding and resources that can support them.
After months of uncertainty - and even though uncertain times may lie ahead - homeowners are trying to remain hopeful.
"We all cheer when someone gets a new roof or something," Marc Whirledge said. "We all talk about it and celebrate it."