'Longest and fastest year of my life': How residents are doing after the 2021 Naperville tornado
One moment, it feels like only yesterday.
The next, it feels like a never-ending grind.
It's been one year since a Father's Day tornado struck Naperville and nearby communities. Affected residents in the hardest-hit subdivisions are looking back while dealing with lingering frustrations.
"I don't really want to think about it, but I also want to be proud of how far I've come," said Katie Long Piper, whose Princeton Circle house in Naperville was ravaged.
"It's been the longest and fastest year of my life."
The tornado tore through homes south of 75th Street shortly after 11 p.m. on June 20, leaving one house destroyed and more than 200 damaged in Naperville.
Families the Daily Herald spoke with six months after the storm -- including Long Piper, Leandro Saez and Marc and Marie Whirledge -- continue to exist in different states of recovery despite enduring the tornado's wrath within a few blocks of each other.
"I'm not going to say it went by fast," Saez said, "but it's incredible that it's been a year."
The strongest tornado to hit the metro region since 2015 caused at least 11 injuries while claiming the life of an unborn baby in Woodridge. The tornado touched down near Springbrook Forest Preserve and spanned 17.6 miles while carving a path toward Willow Springs and reaching peak wind speeds of 140 mph.
The sirens rang across Naperville at about 11:07 p.m. that Sunday, leaving little time to seek shelter.
Long Piper and her son were thrown in the air as they raced to the basement after the house next to theirs was destroyed. Debris shot into their home, filled the backyard and spread for blocks.
Long Piper hurt her neck and shoulder and continues to suffer back pain.
The Saez family and the Whirledges, nearby on Nutmeg Lane, were hit by the tornado at the front of their houses. The bedrooms above the garages suffered the brunt of the damage as Thiago Saez, who had just turned 9, barely escaped injury.
Leandro Saez pulled his wife, Fernanda, and Thiago from under a bedroom door that ripped off the hinges and fell on them. Marie Whirledge and her daughter sprawled on a bedroom floor to avoid broken glass, roof shingles, shards of siding and tree branches swirling through the house.
The minutes and hours that followed began a journey back to normalcy. After a full year, normal still seems far away.
"There are days where I think we should've just sold the house, but then I think of all the neighbors we've gotten to know and have been so kind," Marie Whirledge said. "I don't know that we could find a friendlier neighborhood."
'Can't get away from it'
After leaving their house for three months while the interior was rebuilt, Long Piper and her family returned in December.
Hundreds of boxes arrived, some filled with moldy bread and broken dishes. Feeling overwhelmed, she took stock of her personal well-being.
A staff member at Naperville Central High School, she decided to take a leave of absence.
"I was in such shock and so numb for so long until someone asked if I'm OK," she said. "And I said, 'I don't think I am.'"
Long Piper turned to trauma and yoga therapy. Friends helped unpack boxes as house repairs continued.
Windows finally arrived. New siding, flooring and a rebuilt chimney made the house feel like home again.
Her treasured backyard, however, is unusable except for a small, fenced-in portion by the back door for her dogs. The pool and fence surrounding the yard are long gone.
Debris from the neighbor's destroyed house still is embedded in the ground. The garage, torn from the foundation, still needs repairs.
"My backyard was my Zen and my safe space, and now it's gone," Long Piper said. "Sometimes I walk around the house trying to find my place, and I can't find it."
The Village of Lisle lent a machine to clean the backyard, but it couldn't handle the immense amount of debris. After months of searching for help, Long Piper found a landscaper willing to scrape several inches of the ground and dispose of the dirt, but it's a costly process insurance won't cover.
The neighbor's land is a hole in the ground surrounded by mounds of dirt and a fence. Builders plan to put a new house there but, like so much else, not anytime soon.
"Looking at devastation every day is part of my problem," Long Piper said. "I can't get away from it. I wish I could give everyone the happily ever after, but that takes time and money."
'We learned a lot'
Naperville's first responders shined in the hours and days after the tornado, clearing streets, boarding up homes and providing police patrols.
However, officials acknowledge the city struggled with long-term support.
"We learned a lot," said Naperville Director of Communications Linda LaCloche. "In the past, we were more prepared to address floods and snowstorms, but this is our first tornado.
"You need a longer-term approach, and we didn't know that right away," she said. "We were a little late to understand that. And that's when people from that area came to us and pointed it out to us."
The city formed a recovery committee in the summer and held a December open house for affected residents. Permits were expedited, utility bills halted for uninhabitable houses, power lines were placed underground to ensure service, and residents were directed to state resources for complaints about insurance, contractors and other issues.
Most important was the direct line of communication formed with residents, and the follow-up from partners, such as Loaves and Fishes and St. Vincent De Paul. The city dedicated staff to hard-hit areas to track progress, and employees underwent training to be better prepared in the future.
"We kept coming back to, 'We can't make decisions without talking to the individuals who were affected and find out what roadblocks they're facing,'" LaCloche said. "Otherwise, we're just making assumptions."
The city's efforts continue. LaCloche said its emergency management coordinator is working with surrounding communities on a disaster packet to distribute after events like the tornado.
"We're always looking to improve our emergency response," she said. "We did what we could for things within our control, but I think we would have a better template moving forward."
'It wears on you'
If Marc and Marie Whirledge didn't laugh about it, they'd surely cry.
"We're still living with my parents as 50-year-old adults," Marie said.
A year later, in contrast to the finished Saez house next door, the Whirledge home isn't close to move-in shape. The momentum of a new roof in December and new windows in March faded as supply-chain issues and miscommunication caused siding delays.
Until the siding is installed, which they hope is any week now, no work inside can commence.
The interior is a shabby maze of subflooring and framing. Because there are no soffits on the roofline, birds' nests are scattered throughout the home, and carpenter bees have bored their way in.
The couple fight constant battles with the insurance company for everything including a new deck, mold remediation and drywall. They say the Tyvek wrapping on the house, installed in the winter, is so old and tattered by the weather it needs to be replaced before siding can be added.
"Every day, we try to keep each other in a good mood, and we eat a lot of stress ice cream," Marc Whirledge said. "It wears on you."
First, they were told they'd be back in the house by Christmas. Then March. July is the latest target for moving in.
Eighty percent of their possessions were lost. A salvage company cleaned the rest, packed it and is storing it at a cost incurred by the insurance company, estimated by the Whirledges to be about $100,000 so far.
Staying on top of the situation is a commitment, so much so that Marc Whirledge has seen his salary as a pilot drop by 30% because of the time off he requires.
Meanwhile, no work has been done on the house in about a month.
"Sometimes you feel like there's light at the end of the tunnel, and then there are other days where you think it'll never end," Marc Whirledge said. "Things are good, but we just want to be back to our normal life."
'A good moment'
A few feet away from the Whirledge's home is a beautiful new house, lovingly appreciated by Leandro Saez and his family.
They moved in on May 21, less than a year after the tornado rendered the house uninhabitable, and just in time for Thiago's 10th birthday.
Leandro Saez said it's been a struggle for Thiago in the aftermath of the storm that destroyed nearly all his possessions, including the birthday presents he received just a few days earlier. Therapy and the support of friends and family helped him adjust.
To ease Thiago's transition back into his home, neighbors and friends from school held a welcome-home party.
"They played a lot and told Thiago how happy they were to have him back," Leandro Saez said. "It was a good moment for us."
The family rented a house for several months as Saez pushed for work to continue on their home. After the roof went on and drywall was installed, Saez said his heating bill was about $1,000 a month during the winter to keep the drywall warm and the water pipes from freezing.
Windows arrived in March and siding in April. A month later, they moved in.
Saez, though, made two significant changes. He added a shelter area in the finished basement for the family to gather during future storms, and he moved Thiago's bedroom to the back of the house.
But for all the joy of a new house, the family received another kick when the insurance company declined to renew their policy because of the extreme expense of the tornado damage.
Regardless, the family feels blessed to be back home.
A reminder of how blessed requires just a glance next door.
"It's a restart for us," Saez said. "It's good, but it's tough to still have neighbors who are struggling."