By Tais Papa, CCI Greenheart Exchange Student
I’m an exchange student from Brazil, living in Metamora, Illinois since August. I was hoping to experience the American weather and climate but not as much as I did. My host sister and I were surprised on Sunday, November 17, while we were at church, with a EF-4 tornado.
There aren’t such things like that in Brazil, my home country, so I had no idea of how destructive it can be. In the middle of the service, we were all told to leave the chapel and take cover in the bathrooms of the building, since those were the safest areas of the building during a tornado. Because the whole town was without power, church was dismissed once the storm passed. Without knowing the damage caused, my host sister and I tried to pass through the most affected areas in Washington, Illinois, while trying to make our way back home from church. It was shocking to see roofs in the middle of the street, destroyed cars and power lines, personal items hanging on the trees and all the homes on some streets completely leveled.
We later discovered that the tornado passed through the entire town, cutting the town in half in a path of destruction. Because of this, we were unable to get through Washington to get home. My host parents came to get us, to lead us back out of town and through the country roads to our home. The tornado passed within a couple miles of my host house but, thankfully, it was not affected; we were just without energy the whole rest of day. But for Washington, the city right by mine, it was a catastrophe. Over 500 homes in our region were completely destroyed and over 500 more were so severely damaged that they are uninhabitable. It will be many months before the town is rebuilt.
Our school still had no electricity the next day, on Monday, so I went with my host dad, my host sister, and other members of our church to volunteer in the area affected. We helped people try to find and remove their things out of the ruins, moved boxes, and cleaned gardens. Since the city water supply was contaminated by broken pipes, we also handed out bottled water.
I was astonished with the destruction the tornado caused in just a few minutes; it passed through the entire town in less than 10 minutes. I have also never realized how it would be to suddenly lose everything. I couldn’t even recognize a house where I had been just a week before — the windows, furniture and roof were gone. People were looking for their pets, their children’s clothes, marriage pictures, family jewelry, anything that could be a memory.
What also has surprised me is how many people are working and helping, even not knowing each other, everybody doing as much as they can. I thought it was really cool the number of American flags put up in trees or even in ruins as a symbol of ”we will overcome this, together!” It really showed me how you can never give up.
Now my school is getting involved. We have Washington as our ”arch-rivals” in football but many of their football players lost their houses, so we’re going to do a team meal for them and use their team colors on Friday’s game to show our support. We are selling treats to raise money to help them and going over to their town during school hours to clean up the remains of destroyed homes and hand out donated supplies such as towels, winter clothes, school material, etc. We know that they would do the same for us.
I feel so lucky to be safe and to have the opportunity to help them. I learned to be grateful for everything and everybody that I have, and how important is to do everything we can to help. It has added so much more to all the lifelong learning that I’m having this year.