On April 9th, 2015, an EF-4 tornado ripped through at least four counties in Illinois. Three days later, on April 12th, I decided to travel to the area which was hardest hit- Fairdale, Illinois.
The only motivation I had was to cover the disaster with my camera. I prepared as best as I could and knew I would be documenting some of the hardest moments anyone would have to go through.
Once I arrived at Fairdale, I soon discovered that every road that led into the town was blocked off by police and sheriffs. Only permitted families, recovery crews and volunteers were allowed access to the town.
After a few minutes of photographing what I could from my vantage point a lady approached me and
asked if I had been to Rochelle, another town which had been hit pretty hard by the tornado. She informed me that there were pockets of areas that had been hit throughout Rochelle and unlike Fairdale, access was mostly permitted. After explaining that I had drove down from Milwaukee and had just arrived in Fairdale, I took her advice and went to check out Rochelle.
I decided to check out one area of Rochelle in particular. An intersection (highway 251 & 64) where Grubsteakers, a well known restaurant was located, and where six people survived by taking shelter in the basement.
One thing to point out is this tornado was on the ground for close to thirty miles. The path of the tornado would be hard to follow on the ground, mostly due to the vast rural landscape.
Traveling the most direct route from Fairdale to Rochelle, I encountered various areas of destruction. It ranged from homes that had their roofs ripped off to whole farms being completely demolished. In some areas you could see where the tornado literally crossed the highway and cut a path through whole forests.
Once I arrived in Rochelle, I was fortunate enough to meet Candy Trudell, who told the story of how she survived the tornado with her boyfriend's eighty-three year old mother. The two of them took shelter in the home's bathroom, which had no basement. They survived by laying in and next to the bathtub with pillows covering their heads. Candy was sure that if it were her time to die it would be quick and painless. The tornado hit the home and completely disintegrated it. The bathtub which Candy huddled in had flipped over and formed a protective barrier as the tornado destroyed the home. Both the mother and Candy survived the devastation of literarily being buried in the rubble. The mother suffered broken ribs and other cuts and bruises. Candy suffered bruising and numerous stitches. Both are lucky to be alive.
Candy allowed me permission to photograph what was left of her property, as long as I was careful.
As a photographer, this photo essay made me realize the diligence that is needed to cover any tragic event. At one point two men approached me and kindly asked me to stop photographing the area. Understandably, I honored their request. Even though I had permission to photograph, I certainly was not going to push the issue. They explained to me that once the tornado had passed there were a wave of looters who were trying to capitalize on this event. Soon afterwards the news media made their rounds. After three days of dealing with this disaster these people just wanted their neighbors and themselves back. Unless you were directly involved with the rebuilding process, they just wanted to be left alone.
Needless to say, I kind of felt like a dick. Still, I felt it was important for me to make the journey to the area and document what I could.
I wish for a speedy recovery of Fairdale and Rochelle, along with the other communities who suffered loss and damages. I hope that the people who were affected by this natural disaster can soon get back to a somewhat normal life.
I'll do a follow up project next year to see how things have evolved.