Families steadily rebuild their lives in Woodridge months after tornado

  • Bridget Casey, with her sons, Marcus, 9, left, and Tobias, 6, is waiting to rebuild her Woodridge home six months after a tornado. They are standing in the garage, which lost the roof and back wall.

      Bridget Casey, with her sons, Marcus, 9, left, and Tobias, 6, is waiting to rebuild her Woodridge home six months after a tornado. They are standing in the garage, which lost the roof and back wall. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Bridget Casey and her son, Marcus, 9, left, look over the debris that remains in their tornado-stricken Woodridge home. She is working with a new contractor after the first one did not follow through with the work.

      Bridget Casey and her son, Marcus, 9, left, look over the debris that remains in their tornado-stricken Woodridge home. She is working with a new contractor after the first one did not follow through with the work. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Tarps cover what is left of Bridget Casey's Woodridge home.

      Tarps cover what is left of Bridget Casey's Woodridge home. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • The top half of Bridget Casey's Woodridge home was destroyed in the June tornado and remains fenced off until a contractor begins the rebuilding process. "We are in a small apartment right now because we are waiting to get our house started," she said.

      The top half of Bridget Casey's Woodridge home was destroyed in the June tornado and remains fenced off until a contractor begins the rebuilding process. "We are in a small apartment right now because we are waiting to get our house started," she said. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • A picture frame stayed on the wall, while the rest of the bedroom in Bridget Casey's Woodridge home was torn apart in a nighttime tornado six months ago.

      A picture frame stayed on the wall, while the rest of the bedroom in Bridget Casey's Woodridge home was torn apart in a nighttime tornado six months ago. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, June 2021

 
 
Updated 12/20/2021 12:07 PM
Second of two parts

The tornado that night sprayed everything with fiberglass insulation.

Bits of it were stuck in Bridget Casey's hair. The fibers settled into the fabric of her clothing. What remained of her family's home in Woodridge was coated with the stuff.

 

"Sadly, it's not the first tragedy that we've gone through, but it's kind of like we buck up and move on," Casey said. "We're taking it a day at a time."

Casey's husband died four years ago. The widowed mom was raising four kids, their youngest now 6, in the home across the street from Edgewood Elementary School.

In an instant, the tornado last June tore off the roof and collapsed walls, leaving their house in ruins and claiming most of their belongings. But they were alive.

Six months later, Casey and other storm survivors in Woodridge are still coming to terms with the losses. It is a slow, tedious job recovering from a tornado.

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Residents trying to repair and rebuild their homes have felt the strain of supply chain disruptions. They've dealt with unreliable contractors and lengthy negotiations with insurance companies.

"There's so many insurance adjusters. There's an inside adjuster. There's an outside adjuster, a personal contents adjuster. So it's a long process to get everybody on the same page," said Casey, who's still waiting to rebuild. "The first outside adjuster was just, 'This is too much. I've not handled anything this large and of this magnitude.'"

For some residents, it all became too much. About a half dozen homes damaged by the tornado were sold to contractors.

"There's going to be folks who are still not in their homes even by next spring," Village Administrator Al Stonitsch said.

Toll of the damage

The tornado touched down in a forest preserve about 11:02 p.m. June 20. As many people were sleeping, the tornado charged east, through a Naperville subdivision and toward Woodridge neighborhoods of mostly working-class families.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
IN JUNE: A tornado tore off the roof of Bridget Casey's Woodridge home and knocked down the exterior walls.
  IN JUNE: A tornado tore off the roof of Bridget Casey's Woodridge home and knocked down the exterior walls. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, June 2021

More than 160 structures in town sustained significant damage. By the village's count, 33 properties are still unoccupied. Six of those homes have either been demolished or partially removed.

"There's still a number of homes in just various states of repair," Stonitsch said.

The recovery has been stalled by the insurance claims process, coverage disputes, shortages of construction materials, limited contractor availability and now winter weather.

Earlier this month, residents of a tornado-stricken townhouse complex were displaced because contractors had to shut off the water to all 56 units to avoid freezing and bursting pipes while they replace building roofs.

To help those families, the village has formally requested that the U.S. Small Business Administration reopen a disaster loan program on an emergency basis.

Across DuPage County, more than 60 homeowners have applied for low-interest loans through the federal relief program. As of this fall, about half had been processed and approved so far, Stonitsch said, though that doesn't necessarily mean the others were denied.

The village has cut through the bureaucracy of rebuilding by expediting construction permitting.

"We broke our all-time annual building permits record by September," Stonitsch said.

Coming together

While the damage still lingers, so too does the town's resiliency.

In the aftermath of the tornado, volunteers formed a group called "Neighbors Helping Neighbors" to raise funds for storm victims. Organizers have partnered with churches, business owners and nonprofits like the Rotary Club to provide donated clothing, food and gift cards at "give events."

The village and "Neighbors Helping Neighbors" recently reserved hotel rooms for the more than 30 families displaced from their townhouses. Dollars raised through local relief efforts will help pay for their temporary housing through the holidays.

The group is now in the process of securing nonprofit status to continue to help those in need of financial support.

And in neighborhoods stripped bare of mature trees, the Morton Arboretum will help plant new ones.

"They lost hundreds, probably thousands of trees, in some cases, really old, beautiful heritage oaks," said Murphy Westwood, the arboretum's vice president of science and conservation.

The arboretum is donating 300 trees for Woodridge residents as part of a tree-planting initiative launching in April for its centennial year.

"They're our neighbors. They're just a couple miles away from us," Westwood said.

Starting over

The night of the tornado, Casey's oldest son, Nathan, was watching videos in the basement when he heard an alert on his phone and a crash.

The teen climbed upstairs and saw the open sky where the roof used to be. The Boy Scout forced open a jammed door to rescue his younger brother from his bedroom. Then the family took refuge in the basement and escaped without physical injuries.

"My little one still gets nervous about storms, so we just sit there and look at the weather reports to see what's happening, and he seems to calm down," Casey said.

Bridget Casey still had insulation in her hair after a tornado struck her home and neighborhood in Woodridge apart six months ago.
  Bridget Casey still had insulation in her hair after a tornado struck her home and neighborhood in Woodridge apart six months ago. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, June 2021

Her friend has set up a GoFundMe page that's raised about $38,500 to help the family recover. They've found a place to live in a nearby apartment in Woodridge. Casey's kids, Nathan, Marion, Marcus, and Tobias, can go to the same schools and stay close to their friends.

"They're as stable as they can possibly be," Casey said.

But the three-bedroom apartment is a tighter squeeze for the family of five. And it's not home.

Their Woodridge Drive house is surrounded by fencing, and blue tarps cover what the tornado left behind.

Casey had to find another contractor to rebuild her home after the first "seemed to have stalled with their enthusiasm."

"They're probably just going to be able to save the foundations," Casey said.

She managed to save her late husband's ashes, his Christmas ornaments and some family photos. She estimates 90% of their possessions were lost.

Standing in the wreckage of her home, days after the tornado, Casey kept her perspective. Her kids were safe, and that was all that mattered. Was someone watching over them?

"I think their dad was," she said.

• • •

Woodridge tornado: By the numbers

• The village has spent approximately $600,000 in tornado-related cleanup and restoration expenses since June. It paid for the costs out of general fund reserves.

• More than 30 homes sustained major damage or were considered "complete losses."

• Four units in the Villages of Greene Valley and 56 units in the Woodridge Country Club townhouse complex remain unoccupied or uninhabitable.

• When it hit homes around Woodridge Drive and Jonquil Lane, the tornado was an EF-2 on the 0-to-5 Enhanced Fujita scale, with winds around 125 miles per hour, the National Weather Service said.

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