'Someone's Entire Life is Gone'

As the devastation of the Illinois tornado outbreak becomes clear, REALTORS® spring into action to help victims pick up the pieces.

November 22, 2013

Dallas Hancock recalls a moment amid the chaos after a powerful tornado swept through the town of Washington, Ill., nearly flattening it. It’s a moment that, in her eyes, symbolizes a glimpse of joy during tragedy.

In the piles of rubble littering one subdivision, a woman was sifting through what was left of her home. Pictures and mementos were scattered, probably for miles. And then out of nowhere, someone spotted something in the ruins that the woman had long forgotten about — something that reminded her she has had, and will have again, better days. It was her high school class ring.

“She said, ‘I couldn’t tell you where that ring had been. I hadn’t seen it in years,’” recalls Hancock, CEO of the Peoria Area Association of REALTORS®.

Since an outbreak of powerful twisters ravaged several communities in Central Illinois on Sunday, Nov. 17 (the National Weather Service tracked 10 separate tornado paths in the state), Hancock and the members of PAAR have been on the ground in the hardest-hit areas to witness moments like this while distributing emergency supplies and offering what help they can to the victims of the storms.

“When you walk around this neighborhood, I’ve got to tell you — and I’ve seen this kind of stuff on TV before — but when you walk around, you say, ‘How could that house have ended up in this crumble?’” Hancock says. “Someone’s entire life is gone.”

Helping tornado victims put their lives back together is Hancock’s goal as she and REALTOR® associations across Illinois band together to provide aid to struggling communities. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency has released early estimates that more than 1,000 homes were completely destroyed or suffered major damage in the storms. So far, officials say, eight people died. And about 15 PAAR members are now homeless, Hancock says.

One of those members is Marc Wells of Washington, Ill., whose house was left in tatters after Sunday’s tornado. “We are all doing fine with the help of family and friends,” Wells says. He and his daughter were inside their home when the twister struck, and Wells shot this terrifying and harrowing video of the ordeal (be warned that there is some coarse language):

Wells says he and his family are staying with friends until Dec. 31, when one of Wells’ rental units will become available for his family to live in while they rebuild. They are just one example of families all over Illinois in dire need of help right now.

“I’ve been handing out bins to people who are trying to save any piece of their lives that they can find,” Hancock says. On Tuesday, she drove a truck full of plastic bins, storage bins, and heavy-duty garbage bags into the town of Washington. On Wednesday, she passed out 700 bins. On Thursday, she was planning to prep a warehouse to house used furniture that people may need.

Hancock has also been coordinating an outpouring of emergency funds and supplies coming from all over the state. The Illinois Association of REALTORS® immediately sent and distributed $7,500 worth of gift cards to victims after Sunday’s storms.

“Sometimes people don’t even know what they need yet, so they can use the gift cards to get exactly what it is they need,” says Jon Broadbooks, IAR’s communications director.

The Chicago Association of REALTORS® donated $7,000, Midwest Real Estate Data donated $25,000, and the Capital Area Association of REALTORS® in Springfield, Ill., donated $5,000. Keller Williams Realty offices in Chicago and Iowa have loaded up trucks of their own with supplies to bring to Central Illinois.

The associations offering help with storm recovery is “a growing list,” Broadbooks says, adding that seven or eight have already taken tangible steps. “Florida has even contacted us to help.”

“It doesn’t matter where something happens; everyone acts like it’s their own community,” Broadbooks says. “That’s a remarkable thing for any association to be able to say.”

Many REALTOR® associations have ongoing efforts to collect donations and supplies, including:

  • PAAR has set up a Web site to solicit funds, and 107 people have made donations as of Nov. 19. The association has also partnered with Nestrent.com, a rental database, to waive subscription fees and allow landlords with available rental units to post them free of charge for victims needing housing.
  • The Bloomington-Normal Association of REALTORS® is hosting a drive where donors can drop off clothes, tools, water, and other supplies. BNAR will deliver them to the communities in need. The association is also partnering with a local radio station to get the word out about the need for donations.
  • The Champagne County Association of REALTORS® is also hosting a drive and developing a database of available rental units for people who need temporary housing.
  • The REALTOR® Association of Southwestern Illinois is using its Web site as a hub for donations.
  • The Three Rivers Association of REALTORS® has set up a relief fund at Mazon State Bank.

“This is a very strong community. They are really rallying,” Hancock says. “Everyone is being extremely generous. … There are a lot of families that need housing, and that’s what REALTORS® are all about. We need to be the shining star in all of this.”

The REALTORS® Relief Foundation has been working with Illinois Association of REALTORS® CEO Gary Clayton to address the state’s needs. The foundation began accepting donations for Midwest tornado relief on Nov. 21. On Nov. 25, National Association of REALTORS® President Steve Brown is expected to send an all-member appeal for donations to help tornado victims, along with residents of Boulder, Colo., who are still recovering from massive flooding in September. The foundation has disbursed more than $25 million since its founding in 2001. One hundred percent of donations go to disaster relief.

Contribute to the REALTORS® Relief Foundation.

Graham Wood
Executive Editor of Digital Media

Graham Wood is Executive Editor of Digital Media for REALTOR® Magazine. He can be reached at gwood@nar.realtor.