Written by Tim Alexander   
Wednesday, 11 December 2013 00:00

Zehr Farm_1

The November 17 tornado not only destroyed a large part of Washington’s residential area, but it also swept across the county’s countryside, laying waste to numerous houses, barns, and outbuildings. Above is the scene at the Curt Zehr farm where the house and most of the outbuildings were destroyed, while a nearby swine operation was spared.  Photo by Tim Alexander.


WASHINGTON, Ill. - Twisted wreckage was all that remained of Curt and Sue Zehr’s farmhouse, sheds and machinery north of Washington, Illinois, following the November 17 EF-4 tornado that also flattened over 1,000 homes and businesses inside the Tazewell County town of 15,000. Originally claiming one life, the death toll in Washington climbed to two last week when an 82 year-old woman succumbed to injuries she had suffered in the twister.

Days after the Sunday morning tornado swept away her home, Sue Zehr was looking forward to beginning the rebuilding process and grateful her family’s lives were spared. “The cell phone alert saved us,” she said. “My iPhone went off and my son and I went to the basement. A couple of minutes later the tornado was on us.”


Husband Curt Zehr, a hog farmer who serves as treasurer and at-large director for the Illinois Pork Producers Association, was in a nearby, rural church with his father when the tornado-- which achieved speeds of 170 to 190 mph-- struck the family’s farmhouse (the couple’s swine operation, located nearby, was not hit). From the Zehr farm at 28940 Dutch Lane, the storm began a northeastern march through Woodford County, causing minor damage to a couple of other farmhouses and barns before registering a direct hit on the Kevin Hodel farm at 1220 Mennonite Road, east of Metamora. Curt Zehr and his father were, coincidentally, also on Mennonite Road attending church.

According to Kent and Janet Hodel-- Kevin’s parents-- the home was destroyed along with outbuildings and farm machinery owned by Kent, who is field promotions coordinator for the Illinois Soybean Association. Kevin Hodel was able to rent a farmhouse nearby that had recently become vacant due to the passing of the previous owner, the Hodels said.

Also in the region was Bill Christ, a Country Financial Agent who lives and works in Metamora and serves as District 7 director for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. After dropping off a rented tractor at Martin Bros. Implement east of Roanoke, Christ was driving back toward Metamora with a hired worker when he saw the twister slashing through the countryside to his southwest.

“I could hear sirens, faintly, and when I looked west I couldn’t see Metamora, which is about ten miles away. To me the tornado appeared to be about an eighth-mile wide, compared to the half-mile wide rows we farm, and heading north,” Christ recounted. “Fifty-five gallon barrels and scraps of tin were dropping everywhere from machine sheds being (destroyed), so we hurried south of Route 116 to get back as the tornado went northeast.”

Christ insures the Hodel farm and is also acquainted with the Zehr family; he confirmed that both farms were total losses. As the tornado continued on its path, it left behind more damaged farmhouses and agricultural operations, Christ said.

Thirteen semi trucks were tossed about on a farm near the junction of routes 116 and 117, a farmhouse and farm tile business belonging to Ron Veatch was destroyed north of Roanoke, and a centennial farm was leveled two miles north of nearby Benson. According to news sources, Mollie Stehl isn’t sure whether the farm, which was owned by the same family for over 100 years, would ever be rebuilt. Other farmhouses lost roofs or sustained other serious damage.

Helping his Country clients to find shelter and provide for their basic needs was the primary role of Christ’s insurance office in the immediate aftermath of the tornado, he said. “We have tried to make sure they have a place to stay. I have forwarded money on their claims for food, clothes, cars and lodging. Those are the essentials we have to take care of before getting into appraising their damages,” said Christ, adding that he has yet to see any financial estimates associated with area storm damages released by Country.

“You’ve got to realize the victims are going through a lot of psychological events. Some of them have children and it’s hard to explain to them why their bedrooms and toys are gone. I don’t think we emphasize enough that this was an extremely traumatic event to us older people, but these kids have never seen or imagined anything like this devastation,” Christ added.

The trauma associated with the tornado is something that will stay with Sue Zehr for quite some time. The family plans to begin rebuilding soon after a structural engineer examines the home’s foundation and, hopefully, deems it sound. For now they are renting a house in Eureka, just a few miles east of their former home. The rental home had to have one simple but essential feature before Sue Zehr would reside in it.

“Having a basement was a requirement,” she said. “I will never live in a home without a basement in it.”

Many tornado victims have been dealing with their own personal trauma from the storm by devoting themselves to aiding others.

“There are people who lost just about everything who are out there helping those who might have lost a little more,” said Christ. “It’s really amazing how these small communities can band together. A lot of (the recovery) has been done without government resources. People have just stepped up to take care of the situation.”

Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 December 2013 10:33
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