Rebuilding suburban homes months after experiencing a tornado

The damage from tornadoes can last for months. Here is some of the aftermath in Naperville roughly six months later:

Photo by Kelly L on Pexels.com

There may never be a full recovery for dozens of Naperville residents continuing to struggle in the wake of a devastating tornado that tore through sleepy neighborhoods shortly after 11 p.m. June 20, leaving one house destroyed and more than 200 damaged in an area just south of 75th Street…

Six months later, they and so many others continue to deal with slow-responding insurance companies, negligent contractors, supply-chain issues and a city government that’s never grappled with the long-term effects of devastation on this scale…

Some homeowners are simply choosing to sell for the value of the land. Others are dedicated to rebuilding no matter how long it takes…

City officials say they understand the frustration in the neighborhoods and acknowledge the difficulty in assessing resident needs. They’ve tried to expedite the permitting process — waiving fees is being considered if it directly benefits homeowners and not the insurance companies — and they suspended charging residents for utilities.

The feat of building suburban subdivisions can be impressive in its own right. When the mass construction of neighborhoods occurred regularly after World War Two, it represented a change to how housing was built.

Reconstructing suburban subdivisions might be a more difficult task. Rebuilding numerous homes and reconstructing daily lives amid normal suburban life is not easy. The advantage of building a whole subdivision at once is that all of the equipment, materials, and labor can be in place at the same time. When some homes are destroyed and damaged, it sounds like efforts are more scattered or focused on particular properties.

Since suburbs do experience tornadoes at least semi-regularly in the United States, is there a set of best practices communities and residents can follow? Putting homes and life back together after a calamity is never easy but perhaps there are clearer paths to resiliency.

Did the F5 Plainfield tornado contribute to suburban growth?

Some Plainfield residents feel like the destructive 1990 tornado contributed to the suburb’s later growth:

In the years after the tornado, Plainfield grew from a town of just over 4,000 to more than 41,000 residents today. Some say the tornado and subsequent attention helped put the tiny village “on the map.”

“I think a lot of people saw the community spirit and what a wonderful place this was, and I think that really prompted some of the growth,” said Kathy O’Connell, a lifelong resident who served on the village board.

She and others shared stories of how Plainfield residents pulled together to help one another. In the case of the Kinley family, one resident came forward to take in Don, his wife, Sharon, their son and his family while they rebuilt their homes.

This hints at a feature of suburban communities that many residents and leaders will discuss: their suburb has a lot of community spirit. I am skeptical of such claims for two main reasons:

  1. The people making the argument are often closely connected to civic organizations (local government, charities, business groups, etc.) where there are active community members. This is what they regularly see but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the broader population.
  2. A lot of community spirit compared to what? Would other suburban communities not respond and help if a major tornado hit their community? There is little baseline for levels of community spirit outside of personal experiences and anecdotes.

The case of Plainfield may be different: the response of people to a major natural disaster is likely more forceful than responding to daily suburban life.

Yet, I would argue the tornado just happened to occur right before Plainfield would have grown anyway. The growth was impressive: 186% growth between 1990 and 2000 (4,557 to 13,038 residents) and 204% growth between 2000 and 2010 (13,038 to 39,581 residents). But, Plainfield was not alone. This southwest sector of the Chicago region saw tremendous growth across communities. Naperville was a “boomburb” between 1980 and 2000. Aurora recently became the second-largest city in Illinois. Joliet, losing population through the 1980s, had nearly 40% growth in each of the next two decades. A bit further east, I-355 was extended south from I-55 to I-80. In other words, the open land and easy access to Chicago and other nearby locations (major train lines, major highways) prompted the growth.

Plainfield: From deadly tornado to suburban growth

Plainfield, Illinois has experienced much suburban growth in the last twenty years: it had 4,500 people in 1990 and it was estimated in 2007 to have more than 37,000 (with projections of 120,000 people in 2030).

But at the beginning of this growth spurt, a deadly F5 tornado ripped through the community on August 28, 1990:

The tornado touched down outside Oswego about 3:15 p.m., and the 200 mph winds inside it etched a scar 16 miles long, stretching to the southwest side of Joliet.

By 3:45, the sky was clear and the horizon lined with battered, leafless trees and ruined homes. In all, 1,500 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 300 people were injured and 29 were dead, victims of the most powerful tornado ever to strike the Chicago area.

As the community prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the tornado, this article provides some insights into the collective memory of the community. The memory of their darkest moment faded away as new people moved in, 1,000 new residents in the first year after the tornado. Today, Plainfield is something different than it was then.

Sociological studies of the effects of disasters or crises tend to focus on big cities. I recently heard a presentation about a new book comparing the 9/11 crisis in New York City and the Hurricane Katrina crisis in New Orleans. I wonder if the insights of that book would be able to speak to the experience of people in places like Plainfield.