At Thursday’s townhall meeting in Washington, Mayor Gary Manier asked for a show of hands: “How many of you still live in the city?” Up went a fair number.
“How many don’t?” Up went most in the packed, standing-room-only church.
Naturally, those who have been the most consistent attendees at these informational meetings following the Nov. 17 tornado have tended to be the disproportionately affected, some of whom walked away from what remained of their homes with little but the clothes on their backs. But it was an indication of just what a punch was landed that day. As City Administrator Tim Gleason noted, “We’re the big dog in this disaster,” which was not intended as a boast.
Indeed, what Manier ultimately was trying to get at was that when any community suffers a sudden and dramatic population loss, as Washington has — with 1,000 families, give or take, uprooted and transplanted at least for a time elsewhere — it also impacts those who are left behind. And specifically in this case, it has walloped Washington’s small businesses.
In what is normally their busiest month, the local Chamber of Commerce is reporting a decline in sales of 18 to 25 percent, said Manier. The coffee shop that relies on the regulars coming in every day isn’t seeing as many of them. The bike shop that has always been something of a regional draw isn’t getting the traffic, either. Some who might otherwise have made it a Christmas shopping destination may not want to be perceived as coming to town to gawk at all the destruction. And what Washington is saying, obviously, is don’t worry about that, we don’t mind, life goes on.
To be sure, there is too much commercialism in Christmas. It is not the reason for the season. But that does not make all the other trappings surrounding the holiday unimportant, because it is just a fact that the dollars raised from local retail purchases keep the lights on at schools, the roads paved, the water running, the snow cleared not just in December but throughout the year. “We’re not going to bankrupt the community because of a tornado. We’re going to fight,” vowed Manier. “I would not want to see one business leave because of this devastation, just like I don’t want to lose one resident.”
To that end, again with the help of surrounding communities, Washington has launched its Visit.Shop.Eat campaign, urging central Illinoisans to drop in once a month if they can to have a bite, fill up the tank, grab a few groceries. Among those cheering the effort is Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, whose mother-in-law lost her Washington home in the storm, but who also helps run a city that competes with all the others — including Washington — for businesses and for tax revenues that are necessary to fund its operations, as well. It is a classy, generous thing to do.
It also is one more example — among almost too many to count — about how in so many ways, Christmas came early to Washington, if not in the way the locals would have wished.
It’s fair to note that Washington has received the bulk of the attention due to the storm, and we do not mean to minimize the hit that others — specifically in Pekin and East Peoria — also took. If your home and belongings are gone, it’s no less of a tragedy just because you live in another zip code. We certainly hope that everyone affected is getting all the help they need.
The assistance and generosity we have witnessed in the last six weeks have touched us almost as never before — from everyone who felt compelled to just show up and lend a hand to complete strangers, from every church that housed and/or fed someone no matter the specific faith, from the businesses that provided staples or services at no charge, from the school kids all over the nation who wrote to express their support for local students and their families, from those who simply dug into their pockets and sent money (and more money).
It’s always a whirlwind — to pun intended — this time of year, even in the best of circumstances. For those displaced by the tornado who may be feeling overwhelmed by all the decisions and paperwork, from insurance claims — OK, so there’s replacement value, but there’s this depreciation thing, too — to FEMA and SBA applications and all the rest, it’s especially so. But other people have lives to lead, too, and yet they’ve been there. They didn’t have to be. Washington can speak for itself, but we are confident all of this is appreciated, and that once the community bounces back, its residents will be glad to return the favor, should it ever be necessary, someday.
“Nothing is ever going to be normal again in our community,” said Manier, “but we’re experiencing it together.” Yes, we are, and it speaks very highly of central Illinois, and reminds us just how blessed we who live here are, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. And that makes this a very special Christmas, indeed.