WASHINGTON — There was plenty of coffee, pastries and lively conversation Saturday as the city observed the fifth anniversary of an EF-4 tornado that knocked it down, but not out.
Residents, city officials and first responders filled the training room at the Washington Fire Station for an open house the Washington Ministerial Association hosted.
While the attendees chatted and ate, a slide show of photos played continuously on screens in the front of the room.
Most photos were of some of the 13,000 volunteers who donated an estimated 70,000 hours of labor to the tornado cleanup in a massive effort organized by Bethany Community Church.
The Rev. Ben Davidson, the church's associate pastor, created the slide show. He included a photo he took of a tattered U.S. flag flying in an empty, snowy field off North Main Street.
"I didn't want to show the devastation. I wanted to focus on our recovery," Davidson said about the slide show.
A short remembrance service was held halfway through the one-hour open house.
The service included a Christian hymn, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," and talks by the Rev. James Frye, senior minister at Highview Christian Church, and the Rev. Camilla Hempstead, pastor at Evangelical United Methodist Church.
"We pray that Washington never has a disaster like this again, but, of course, there's no guarantee of that," Frye said. "What we know is God is good."
Hempstead said Washington isn't the same community it was Nov. 16, 2013, the day before the tornado.
"Maybe we're better," she said. "This is a community that works together every day for God's glory.
"God was present when this community recovered and rebuilt. Neighbors became friends as they cleared debris and looked for each other's prized possessions. I came here 18 months after the tornado. You couldn't tell what had happened. The community rebuilt that quickly."
Mayor Gary Manier, resplendent in a bright orange sport coat — orange is Washington's unofficial color — also spoke to the crowd and said the city's churches played a huge role in the recovery, both physically and spiritually.
"We all know there's a separation of church and state in our country, but we appreciated it so much when clergy from our churches came to City Hall after the tornado and prayed with me and our city staff," he said.
"This anniversary week has made me feel at times like the tornado was yesterday," Manier said, his voice filled with emotion. "But we need to celebrate our recovery. We've come a long way from this day five years ago."
More than 1,000 Washington homes were destroyed or damaged by the twister, and there were three tornado-related deaths.
There was another tornado anniversary event Saturday in Washington.
Habitat for Humanity Greater Peoria Area hosted a blessing and open house for a home built at 1208 Hampton St., in a formerly vacant lot. The tornado destroyed the home that was there. The owners did not return.
Lee and Heather Miller and their three children will move into the new home.
The Millers formerly rented a home in Washington and are thrilled they'll be in their own home where the children can attend the same schools, said Lea Ann Schmidgall, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Greater Peoria Area.
St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Washington donated $50,000 toward the purchase of the Hampton lot and building materials. Another $50,000 came from the Washington Illinois Area Foundation, which was created to manage and distribute tornado recovery donations.
"We heard the foundation was close to exhausting its funds, so we talked to them about using some of the money to build a Habitat home in Washington in honor of the tornado recovery," Schmidgall said.
Work on the Hampton home began in May after Habitat received confirmation from the Illinois Attorney General's office that building a Habitat home was an acceptable use of foundation funds.
About 3,000 hours of volunteer labor worth an estimated $40,000 got the home built. Volunteers included church groups from Wisconsin and Ohio.
Steve Stein can be reached at (248) 224-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.