The tornado on Nov. 17 missed the house of Darin Repp's cousins in Washington, Ill. But less than a half-mile away, it flattened rows of homes, uprooted trees and flung cars around the neighborhood like a child with a temper tantrum.
In the following days, Repp noticed posts on Facebook about people finding and returning photos that belonged to Washington residents. Eager to help his cousins' community, he drove out to a forest preserve along the storm's path.
"I really didn't think that I would find much," he says. "I started walking on a trail and something stuck out, and I found an 8-by-10 photo of a baby."
The remarkable thing isn't just that he's found about 80 photos and returned 35 of them to complete strangers, some of whom lost almost every other possession in the tornado. Or that about 500 items have been reunited with their Washington owners.
No, the remarkable thing is where most of these items were found. The storm dropped off these photos, birth certificates, bank statements, marriage licenses and 1950s Boy Scout records in the Chicago area where he lives 90 to 110 miles away from Washington.
What Was Lost
When the tornado warning sirens went off on that Sunday morning, Nov. 17, Barbara Walsh about to leave church after teaching a Sunday school class. The sky looked clear, but she and her daughter went into the basement anyway. A few minutes later, when the alarms stopped, they got in the car and started to drive home.
They made slow progress. There were knocked-over trees blocking the roads a bit nerve-wracking, perhaps, but nothing too unusual for a central Illinois windstorm.
Walsh found out later that she was about 20 seconds behind the tornado. And as they drove on, they saw its damage: flattened houses, power lines down, debris everywhere. They couldn't find their street. Neighbors were emerging from the remaining shells of their homes.
Finally, they found her son standing soaked, shoeless and shell-shocked on what used to be their driveway, in front of what used to be their house.
What Was Found
In early December, Repp went on his fifth day of photo hunting, this time in a forest preserve in Willow Springs, Ill., 105 miles from Washington as the crow flies. He found a photo of a man holding a young girl in a pink dress and white shoes; the girl was kissing his cheek. Like the other photos he found, he posted it on Facebook.
That night, sitting on a couch in her friend's house, Walsh was scrolling through the Facebook page and Facebook group dedicated to recovering items lost in the tornado.
"I was looking through pictures from Chicago, and I thought, 'Our stuff didn't end up in Chicago,' " she says.
That's when she saw Repp's post and recognized the photo immediately. It was a picture Walsh herself had taken of her husband and daughter nine years ago.
Compared to the house, cars, clothes and furniture that were lost in the storm, a single photo might not seem like a lot. But a photo like this, she says, is irreplaceable.
"I was just so touched that somebody found it," Walsh says. "It's kind of like getting a little piece of our family back. Even if it's damaged, it still belongs to us."
Why It Happened
The photo reunion efforts are largely orchestrated inside the Morton, Ill., Public Library, right next door to Washington. Marsie Gale, who lives in nearby East Peoria, is part of a core group of volunteers cataloging every photo and document that comes in.
"We're getting photographs back in that are circa 1920s, 1930s. It's amazing. We have glass negatives that have been turned in that are totally intact," Gale says.
The volunteers are receiving 20 to 50 envelopes a day, she says, and they're almost all coming in from the Chicago suburbs.
Thomas Schmidlin, a severe weather researcher at Kent State University in Ohio, says it's not surprising that a tornado would carry pieces of paper that far. In this case, the tornado and surrounding thunderstorm were moving at 60 miles per hour and might have carried the items 7 miles in the air.
But it doesn't happen in every tornado. The key, he says, is for the tornado to run through an area with a lot of paper, like a neighborhood, and drop it in a place where there are people pick it up, like suburban Chicago.
Of course, the circumstances had to be even more serendipitous in order to return the photos. The people picking them up in the Chicago area had to know that they might have come from Washington. They had to know to post them on the Facebook page or send them to the Morton Public Library.
And someone in Washington had to be looking for photos. "The bottom right one is my hubby on our honeymoon!" someone wrote on a Facebook post. Gale says one woman came into the library and found a picture of her son who died nine years ago now the only picture of him that she had left.
"This project ... has been the most rewarding thing I've done, ever," Gale says. "It is just phenomenal to have people coming in and finding things that they thought were gone forever."
Searching in the Chicago area has taken a hiatus after a recent snowfall. But Gale is optimistic about finding items, even in the spring. "People were, prior to snow, finding things up there every day, and they said they were not even having to try," she says.
Repp intends to go back out there again once the snow thaws. It's a fun little treasure hunt for him, he says, and one makes a big difference for those in his cousins' community. One woman told him that a photo he found was the only item she had left from her demolished house.
"For me, it's about connecting people back with some level of normalcy that they had before all of this devastation happened," Repp says. "It doesn't have extra deep meaning for me other than: I can do it, so it's the right thing to do."
Meanwhile, in Washington, Walsh is among the many residents who are deciding to rebuild their houses.
In it, she says, she'll place a framed photo of her husband holding her daughter in a pink dress and white shoes, kissing his cheek.
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