WASHINGTON — Lorelei Cox was a special education teacher and chair of the special education department at Washington Community High School. Melissa Warfield was a teacher in Cox's department.
Sydney Greim and Olivia Damery were seventh-graders at Central Intermediate School in Washington.
Their worlds turned upside down Nov. 17, 2013, when an EF-4 tornado roared through Washington, destroying or damaging more than 1,000 homes.
Cox, Greim and Damery each lost their home. Warfield's home was severely damaged. They were all displaced and disoriented, but they pressed on.
"I had to pull it together for my students," Cox said. "A lot of them had to come from so far away, where they were living, just to get to school. I was in a great position to be an advocate for them."
"I needed to keep going for my family and my students," Warfield said.
"We were all looking for a sense of normalcy," Greim said.
Central Intermediate School was closed for a few weeks following the tornado so the damage could be repaired. The closure was a blessing in disguise for Damery.
"Having that time off gave me an opportunity to realize what had happened," she said. "When we got back to school, our teachers did everything they could to make each day feel as normal as possible. They didn't talk about the tornado much."
Fast forward to 2018. The fifth anniversary of the tornado is Saturday.
Cox is in her family's rebuilt home on Westminster Drive.
She retired from the high school in 2015 after 40 years as a special education teacher and 26 years as special education department head, and is now a homebound tutor for high school students and a long-time substitute teacher at the high school when needed.
Warfield is in her 19th year at the high school. She's now an English teacher and back in her family's home on Anne Street.
Greim and Damery are 17-year-old high school seniors, a few months away from graduation.
Greim lived with her family on Streamwood Court when the tornado hit. The family now lives on Cruger Road. Damery and her family have moved from MacKenzie Street to Debates Street.
The four teachers and students are reliving the horrors, raw emotions and formidable challenges caused by the tornado as the anniversary approaches, but using the outpouring of love and support Washington received from inside and outside the community to shape their daily lives and futures.
"The first few days following the tornado were a blur for me," Warfield said. "But I remember crying every day on my drive from Germantown Hills, where my family was staying with my parents, into Washington.
"It was a shock to drive from a place where the world was going on normally to a place that had been hit by such destruction."
There was an unexpected emotional moment for Warfield at Christmastime 2013, when her family was in Florida.
"We were sitting down to eat as a family and my son Jacob said it was the first time we'd done that since the tornado," Warfield said.
Cox said trying to get her family's life back following the tornado was akin to having a second job.
"And it was a long time before I got a good night's sleep," she said.
"I also had trouble accepting the fact that people wanted to help me. Teaching is a helping profession. A retired teacher helped me through that problem, telling me that when I accept help, I'm helping the person who wants to help me."
Warfield said she's trying to "move on" from the tornado.
But she'll never forgot the acts of kindness — big and small — that followed that ugly day, including a donation of dance outfits to the Washington dance studio her daughter attended.
"Who thinks about that following such a disaster?" she said. "What happened after the tornado showed me that there is so much good in the world and it's so important to pay it forward when someone helps you."
As she completed her full-time teaching days and began tutoring and being a substitute teacher, Cox said, she's been constantly reminded because of the tornado about her long-held belief of the importance of people and relationships over material things.
Greim plans to head to the University of Illinois after graduating from high school and major in early childhood development. She'd like to open her own pre-school someday.
She said she'll use the lessons of positivity and perspective she learned in the aftermath of the tornado in college when working with her pre-school students.
"I'm sure there will be stresses and challenges in college, and I'll be able to deal with them," she said.
Damery wants to attend the University of Missouri. Her career goal is to be an athletic trainer.
She feels she's ready for the academic rigors of college life because of her post-tornado experience.
"I know what's really important, like family," she said. "I'm sure I'll miss my family a lot when I'm away at college."
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.