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NYIP Student in Action – James Burnham

The morning of Sunday, November 17th, we were at home in Tremont, IL, 14 miles directly south of Washington, IL. We heard the tornado sirens and I checked the weather radar and saw the majority of the bad weather off to the north and west. I didn’t know a tornado had just ripped through just 10 miles directly to the west.

After the sirens stopped and I made sure we were in no danger, I headed out hoping to get some shots of the storm. I headed south, didn’t see many shots, but I did run into some severe wind. I headed north toward Washington and started photographing an abandoned farmstead about a mile east of downtown around 1:15pm. Several cars raced around the corner and headed toward town. I decided to follow them to see what was happening. I started following a fire truck with its lights on but I didn’t see any damage downtown. Then the fire truck turned into a fire station, so I decided that it was a non-event and headed home. At that point, I was about a half mile east of the tornado damage. There was nothing about it on the radio. I had no clue at that time what had happened.

About two miles from home, my sister called me and told me about the tornado that hit Washington. Our cousin lives there and she was concerned about her. So I called my cousin, left a message for her, then turned around and headed back up. I called her sister Cathy, who lives in Morton, and she said Chery was fine but that there was some damage to the north. I then got a text message from Chery who said she saw it form over her house and it passed next to her.

By the time I got to the scene, the police had blocked off all access to the area. I took the detour, drove south and came back up a side street and parked across the street. I remembered to bring my NYIP press pass as I knew I would be questioned about my presence there. I was questioned several times by residents, but they accepted me being there and I heard a few harrowing stories of people huddling in basements only to come out right into the rain because there was nothing left over their heads.

I was immediately in total shock by the completeness of the devastation. It was not completely obvious then as I approached it from the south, because I was moving uphill. But once I reached the top and saw directly to the northeast, it was a very sobering sight.

It wasn’t just parts of houses that were destroyed, or just roofs blown off. There were no structures standing as far as you could see. Only foundations remained on most of the properties, and those lay littered with the jumbled confused piles of everyone else’s houses and possessions. The first group of people I encountered were looking for their dog, a poodle. I offered to help, but they honestly did not know what they needed help with. The second person I met was holding an American flag. He was standing in what was left of his Mother-in-Law’s house. She was not home, fortunately. He was looking for somewhere to hang the flag. But there was nothing vertical to put it on. I told him to hold on to it, the wind was still pretty strong at the time.

The weather was relatively warm and the clouds in the sky were deceptively beautiful which contrasted the destruction below. I tried to include this dichotomy in the photos I took. The air was thick with the smell of natural gas. You could hear the rushing sound as many houses shooting gas out of broken pipes. I told a fireman about one and he told me very simply with a smile that "everyone's gas is leaking", and walked on. At the next house he looked for a place to paint "GAS" and couldn't find one. He settled on a white box laying in the front yard.

The video below is a compilation of shots I took as I walked down the center of the damage path. I took over 400 shots over 3 hours. I intended on walking the entire length, but I couldn’t see the end, even with my 400mm telephoto. I think I made it halfway before the sun started to set and I realized I would have to get back to my car before dark. The photos are, for the most part, in sequential order. However the music I chose to accompany the images came to a very emotional point and I felt I had to include the man carrying the kid’s bicycle at 2:44.

Other observations in the video:

at 1:00 Police, Firefighters, residents and some are actually smiling. Maybe because they felt by then everyone was safe, but did not know yet that one person had died.
1:21 Most subfloors were in place, but in a number of cases, the whole house was pulled off the foundation walls leaving only the floor (which probably saved a lot of people).
1:46 Many old trees were ripped out of the ground with their roots
1:52 Most of this house was destroyed, except the cabinets in the kitchen still had dishes neatly stacked
2:00 Mattress lodged about 40 feet up in one of the few remaining tall trees.
2:15 Firefighters went door to door to shut off the gas lines, when they could find them. These guys had to remove a pile of rubble to get at these.
2:31 Volunteers came in with what equipment they had available to clear the streets.
3:04 One SUV crushed and on top of another totaled car was a recurring scene
3:24 Car in basement
4:10 Cars were tossed up to 100 yards from their original location
4:23 American flag flying on anything still standing was another comforting scene
5:32 Those was one lone woman searching through her debris for things to salvage. This struck me as it is a compressed telephoto and though it looks like there is no other person in the shot, they are camouflaged by the debris.
6:25 "OK" was painted on all houses that had already been searched. I chose that as the title for the video.

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=New York Institute of Photography

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