Tornado Destruction Brings Out the Best in Unionists, People

By Chris Stevens

The Labor Paper, Peoria, Ill.

WASHINGTON/PEORIA/PEKIN, Ill.—When death and destruction come calling, the power of people pushes past personal concern.

That’s what happened when an EF-4 tornado, the second highest rating with wind speeds of 170–190 mph, cut a 1/8-mile-wide and 46.2-mile-long path of devastation as it hammered Tazewell, Woodford, Livingston and LaSalle Counties in central Illinois late on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 17.

Pekin, East Peoria and Washington all lay in the path of the tornado and emerged with a trail of shattered homes and businesses, injuries and one fatality.  True to the culture of community, area residents immediately responded with aid.

Washington lost 1,000 homes, Pekin 75–100 and East Peoria 60.  All three cities also suffered many damaged homes and structures.  Immediately following the storm, 148,388 customers were without power, but the members of IBEW Local 51, working for Ameren, had restored service to most by Sunday evening.

“Disasters like the tornado that hit the area bring out the best in people,” says executive director Marty Helfers of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council.  “A tremendous number of the members from our building trades and affiliated contractors have stepped up to help.”

Within minutes of the tornado Darren Smith, business manager for Operating Engineers Local 649, had called Helfers and “asked me to tell the mayors the union offered to bring equipment for any rescue efforts and the clean-up effort.”  He added that “throughout history our member locals and affiliated contractors have been at the forefront of disaster relief and rebuilding peoples’ shattered lives.”

Indeed.  Some who showed up very early and prepared to help quickly focused on one of their own.  Local reaction to the lone area fatality, Steve Neubauer, a member of Local 649 and a longtime mechanic for Otto Baum, demonstrates the sense of unity and family among union members and affiliated contractors.

Despite offering the use of its equipment, the city of Washington was not permitting access to the devastation.  Baum employees then shifted their efforts to Neubauer’s home.  “About 30 employees went to help,” says the firm’s Director of Field Operations, Kurt Baum.

The volunteers quickly shifted to cleaning Neubauer’s home, “which only took about four hours,” Kurt Baum says, adding, “mainly because the entire first level was not there.” He went on to explain how despite following the path of the tornado for almost a mile, “We couldn’t find any remnants of the first floor of their home.”

Neubauer had worked for Otto Baum for 27 years.  According to Kurt Baum, “Steve was a vehicle mechanic when he hired on.  He was a go-to fix-it kind of guy and within a few years he was in the union and a heavy equipment mechanic.”

“Steve was a top-notch guy, unique, very well-liked, and we’re really going to miss him,” Kurt Baum said.  Helfers adds, “Our hearts go out to the family of Steve Neubauer.  The loss of one life is too many.”

The tornado also either smashed or damaged the homes of at least 12 other union members, plus families of two pro-union contractors.  Plumbers Local 63 lost its union hall.  Among the sufferers were members of the Carpenters, Plumbers, Steamfitters, Electrical Workers, Laborers, Sheet Metal Workers and Bricklayers.  The tornado also injured the daughter of IBEW Local 34 member Lonnie Klein.

Other union members rushed to offer aid, including to union colleagues who suffered.  “We were out there on Wednesday helping a teacher,” says Dan Dolan, Business Representative for Carpenters Local 237.  Terry Kepley, retired business representative of Carpenters Local 183, which has since merged with Local 237, is among the many union leaders who lost their home or suffered serious damage.

“We had heard he had lost his house so we gathered a group again,” Doland said.  “I was proud that we had a lot of volunteers both days.”

“I had called Terry to inquire how he was and asked if he needed help,” says Nate German, assistant director of the Carpenters’ regional council and a Local 237 member.  “He told me he needed to get what he could out of the rubble.  We didn’t want to leave him without any help so we made some calls and had members out there the next day.  With volunteers from his church group and our members working together, we were done by noon.”

In addition to lending their skills in the clean-up effort, union locals and others poured financial donations into the relief effort.  Helfers says the building trades initiated a program to establish a disaster relief fund with the goal of providing immediate cash assistance.  “Oftentimes right after a disaster like this that wipes out your home, a person has no cash, no bank card, or credit card.  Plus, if power is out no way to get money for simple things like a toothbrush, change of clothes, and those types of things.”

With an expected 4-year time frame for full recovery, the Heart of Illinois United Way established a Tornado Relief Fund.  The Union Retirees Council, the Labor Council of West Central Illinois and union-affiliated River City Construction each donated $500.   Donations may be sent to the Heart of Illinois United Way.

AFL-CIO Community Services Director for the HOI United Way, Connie “CJ” Higgins says, “Dollars raised through the fund will be used for intermediate and long term needs as requested and verified by our partner agencies and collaborating non-partner agencies.  These funds will be distributed without administrative fees to agencies that are actively engaged in disaster recovery.”