Photos by Billy Sukoski
PEORIA, IL – Molly Brennan’s family piano was handed down from her grandmother. The light brown grand piano is now tangled amongst rubble in a neighbor’s yard about 500 feet away from Brennan’s Peoria, Ill. home. The EF-4 tornado that ripped through the Washington, Ill. area on Sunday, Nov. 17 dropped the piano in the neighbor’s lawn and flattened Brennan’s childhood home.
Brennan, a junior art major at Webster University, returned home that day with her roommate to help her family retrieve their belongings.
Tom Brennan, Molly’s father, kept his spirit positive as he sorted through the wreckage.
“There’s always a glass half full … everybody’s safe,” Tom Brennan said.
Molly Brennan saw posts on Facebook Sunday afternoon saying a tornado was heading toward her hometown. She had trouble contacting her family after seeing the news.
When Molly Brennan got a hold of her mother, she found out the tornado had collapsed her two-story, brown house and attached back patio.
Lost belongings and scraps covered the neighborhood. The debris scattered on the ground included remains of car parts, stuffed animals, clothing, furniture, books, walls and photographs. Families warned each other to wear thick boots and gloves, because glass and nails littered the ground.
Nobody was home when the tornado hit. Molly Brennan’s two sisters, Morgan and Abby, were at work and school, respectively, while Tom Brennan was on a business trip in Phoenix, AZ and Claire Brennan, Molly’s mother, was at the movies.
“It’s just devastating…we’re still in survival mode,” Abby Brennan said.
Abby Brennan compared the search for her belongings to a treasure hunt. One of the treasures salvaged was her mother and grandmother’s wedding dresses — undamaged. Molly Brennan said the search made her realize what is important.
“We are mostly looking for memories. Things that aren’t replaceable,” Molly Brennan said.
The Brennan family paid little attention to replaceable items like clothing and furniture. Molly Brennan said it was fun to find the things worth keeping.
Claire and Molly Brennan were especially anxious to find their missing cat, Oliver. They found their other two pets, a cat and dog, between collapsed pieces of the house, which protected them from injuries.
The family found Oliver two days later.
Molly Brennan’s aunts and uncles traveled into town to help the family recover their belongings. Her aunt, Norma Walling lives in California but was in St. Louis when the tornado hit. After hearing about the tornado, Walling texted her sister Claire Brennan and light-heartedly asked her if she had seen any tornadoes. Claire Brennan responded, “I think my house is gone.” Walling arranged her travel plans.
“You never think anything like this is going to happen, until it actually happens to someone in your own family,” Walling said with tears in her eyes.
When Claire Brennan returned from the movies, she found a pile of debris where her home once stood. She searched for her jewelry box. It held her wedding ring and her mother’s handed-down jewelry.
“My life in a rubble pile,” Claire Brennan said as she looked around the site where her home stood two days prior.
A Facebook page was made to post items people found in the tornado’s aftermath. As Molly Brennan searched through the page, she noticed pictures of herself. Pictures from the Brennan household were found more than 100 miles away.
Some houses near the Brennans’ still had pieces left intact and others had little to no damage, with only roof and sidewall destruction.
Police blocked off the neighborhood and checked identification before allowing people to enter due to earlier looting.
Tom Brennan considers his family lucky for having home insurance. They can either choose to rebuild their house on the same grounds, or find a new home. Until they decide, the Brennan family will be living in a nearby hotel.
“I don’t know how many people are going to want to stay here. It looks like a war zone,” Tom Brennan said as he looked at the open land that used to be his neighborhood.