WASHINGTON — As the five-year anniversary of the EF-4 tornado that struck Washington nears, the foundation established to help fund relief efforts has given away nearly all the money it raised.
Of the just more than $1.6 million donated to help area residents, churches and governments rebuild, less than $10,000 remains, says Matt Moehle of the Washington Illinois Area Foundation.
"I really feel good about it that we did the best with what we were given," he said.
The group disbursed much of that money in the first few years after the storm — first to residents who had sustained damage to their homes and went through an application and review process, and then to local governments that had covered costs for similar repairs or still had to make them.
By the end of spring 2017 nearly $1 million had been spent, and the group put the word out to see if any individuals still had unmet needs.
As the calls started coming in from about 20 families, the foundation brought a caseworker back on board to evaluate the requests and present them to the board.
"About $200,000 was able to be funded to the people who came forward," Moehle said of the effort that took most of the spring and summer to complete.
Asking for aid
Tami Scudder was one of those who went through the process this time. After the tornado struck, she was reticent to relive the experience and battle a confusing process to get funds to cover the cost of her repairs.
So instead she sought and received a federal loan to help her with fixing things inside and outside her home — damage to her fence, siding, windows, furniture and flooring, among other things.
But when the call came out that money was still available, she put her name forward and worked with caseworker Chuck Friend, who had previously evaluated cases for funding immediately after the tornado.
Friend not only helped folks round up receipts and build a case for the specifics behind the costs they were seeking reimbursement for, he also listened — a lot. Some applicants were reluctant, since so much time had passed and since they'd tried to put the storm behind them.
His refrain over lengthy meetings and regular phone calls included reminders that "the money's there, I want to get you some help."
Some people who reached out didn't receive funding, Moehle said, because they didn't meet the same criteria that were used when funds were first given out in the years after the storm. Some applicants, for instance, didn't live there when the damage was sustained.
"We're looking at folks who were impacted who are still there," to be completely fair, he said.
As with the 2013-15 disbursement of funds, the group hearing the presentations were only presented case numbers, not identities of applicants — preserving anonymity and avoiding conflicts of interest arising from a community-based board in a smaller town.
The foundation gave Scudder the full $19,000 she was seeking, allowing her to pay back the money she'd borrowed to effect repairs.
"They came through," she said last week.
Scudder had expected a smaller amount — a few thousand dollars, perhaps.
"I was genuinely floored when they came through with the full amount," she said, giving credit to Friend's work putting together her case and talking her through the process and advocating for her.
"Even though I was just the caseworker, to get these people the funds, to get them even a small bit of closure, and get their lives back in order ... it's kind of self-rewarding," he said.
Ways to improve
Though matters ended well for Scudder, the start of the process was a struggle for her, she admitted — both with what she said early on was a lack of clarity on the application and evaluation process and what she felt was a delay in decision-making, as well as in having to re-live some of the nearly five-year-old experience.
If other communities in the area ever have to grapple with similar relief efforts, she said she thinks it's become easier to share information about the process through social media — where she learned about the renewed effort to disburse funds earlier this year. Scudder also said she hoped that even more people would step forward as advocates for those who lost homes or had property damaged and be available to help walk them through the relief process.
Friend said that in his time working with multiple different tornado relief groups since 2013, he's been encouraging people to also take the time to review their insurance policies to see what is included and what changes they want to make.
In addition to the $200,000 disbursed to families this year, the foundation also agreed to provide about $175,000 to Crossroads United Methodist Church for repairs to the parking lot, where relief vehicles set up shop for weeks after the tornado.
Last year, the group also agreed to spend $140,000 repairing the parking lot at Washington Community High School. Just like at the church, an engineering evaluation determined how much damage at that parking lot came from its time as a staging point for heavy equipment during tornado repairs and how much came from ordinary wear and tear.
The school district covered the latter cost, as did the church.
Last year, the foundation also worked with Habitat for Humanity to take over one of the few remaining vacant lots where a home destroyed by the storm previously sat, receiving confirmation from the Illinois Attorney General's Office that it was an acceptable use of relief funds.
Habitat has spent the summer and fall constructing a new dwelling there, and the foundation has contributed about $87,000 to the effort.
"We thought we did the best job we could with the funds," Moehle said.
Into the future
Separately, the foundation has also established a charitable account for Washington Central District 51 — using funds raised by a volunteer committee in the district, not tornado relief money — and is continuing to work on doing the same with other schools.
They'll also likely work with the Community Foundation of Central Illinois on future endeavors, much as a similar Morton foundation to benefit that community partners with that group.
Chris Kaergard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.