Salem after the tornado: A town that sticks together when things are torn apart
April 7, 2023
A cool breeze swept through the morning air of Sunday, April 2, as residents of Salem’s “The Orchard” neighborhood walked through the streets, taking in the sights of their shattered homes and speaking to whomever they saw.
According to the National Weather Service, a much different kind of wind rampaged through the south side of Salem on March 31: a confirmed EF1 tornado, one of about 50 twisters, some of them catastrophic, that swept the Midwest and South, killing at least 32 people.
While much of the damage in Salem was concentrated on a small radius inside town, there were still victims outside of it, like the Henns.
Brooke Henn said, “You could hear, it was coming diagonal this way.”
Back in town, Ada Wethorford, Jason and Deborah Vaughn, and Shirley Sweet stood together on a central corner and talked about the night of the storm together. Many residents of “The Orchard” had little to no warning before it blew through.
Jessica Schoonover said, “Pretty much as soon as the siren started sounding, the tornado, the sound of the tornado, completely drowned it out.”
Donald Linder said, “Before I could even get out of my chair, it hit… I didn’t even have time to get to the bedroom.”
Mayor Nic Farley said there was only a few minutes of warning.
“We got the alert from the National Weather Service at 8:09 PM. At 8:14 was the first confirmed report of a funnel cloud.”
The storm passed as quickly as it came. The high winds blew a tree through Shelley Westman’s home and destroyed three storage sheds and a fence.
Westman said that about 30 seconds after the tornado sirens went off, her family lost power. They then took shelter, and in “no time,” the noises were over.
“It was just a sudden occurrence that didn’t last long, and it was over and done. Within five minutes, it was over and done, everything, if that long,” Westman said.
As soon as the storm was over and each knew they were ok, many residents went to make sure everybody else was too.
“As soon as it hit, I went outside and all the neighbors had come out and everyone was checking on everybody, I mean, pretty much instantly,” Linder said.
Jason Vaughn said, “As soon as it was over, it was dead silent. All I could hear was the neighbor here hollering, ‘help, she’s trapped.’ I don’t even know if I touched the ground the whole way across here. She was in her house, Jeff [another resident] was out here. It was just chaos.”
Downed tree limbs and insulation littered the yards of several residents. Odder objects, such as toys and books, layed in the yards of others, while chunks of tin were suspended high in trees. The roof, insulation and miscellaneous objects were all displaced from a storage complex, which was devastated by the storm.
Schoonover and Linder lost the front porch of their house and still had neither power nor gas nearly two days after it hit.
“We’re the only ones left on the block. Everyone else has moved out,” Schoonover said.
Other houses in the surrounding area were also affected. One anonymous Salem resident’s home was moved completely off its foundation and detached entirely from the garage. Another had a massive tree fall, crushing the carport and the cars inside, as well as damaging the main roof.
Jeremiah Gibson, an SIU alum and sixth generation farmer in Salem, lost a machine shed, while the Henns lost a large tree and had damage to the ceiling and roof of their home. The unpredictability of tornadoes was on full display in Gibson’s case.
He said, “It literally picked up that whole building and threw it over there, and left the wrenches sitting up there on the sprayer… it was like, ‘ah, just leave me here.’”
There was a swift response from the city; Farley said that “within an hour”, there were dozens of emergency services personnel “going door to door to make sure nobody was hurt.”
Schoonover said, “I’m really thankful. That night, we had four different groups of people come by between the firefighters and the volunteers and the police.”
Even after cleanup efforts from a number of kind volunteers, there was still a lot of work to be done. According to Farley, the city is trying to “coordinate those efforts on what the needs are to get the volunteers in to help start cleaning up.”
Tuesday, April 4 was supposed to be a turning point for the town; a city council meeting was to be held at the fairgrounds, and residents who needed help would be able to attend and have aid directed toward them.
But, things hit a bit of a standstill. According to the National Weather Service, it is predicted that the same area would be in the path of another tornado on Tuesday, leaving residents without a clear direction of how cleanup will continue due to the potential for even more damage.
Despite the upcoming storms, much of the community was coming together to help each other out. Volunteers roamed the streets in their pickups, asking people in their yards if hands, chainsaws and trailers would be any help in their cleanup efforts.
Many of these volunteers asked to remain anonymous. One said “since we all live here [Salem], we all breathe the same, we all should help each other out.”
Linder said, “Even like three or four hours after everything happened… they were still going door to door and checking, making sure everybody was ok.”
Bud Miller, whose business, Midwest Barbecue, was a total loss, said, “The neighborhood’s been great. The people that have been out here have been freaking awesome… there’s still some good people left in the world.”
Farley is very pleased with how his town immediately responded to hardship.
He said, “I’m just real proud of the way everyone’s working together and coming together to try and figure this out.”