Storm levels Catlin house, but no one injured
RURAL CATLIN — Bob Varner said he can confirm what the National Weather Service has not been able to yet: Sunday's severe thunderstorm also produced a tornado in southern Vermilion County, which leveled his farmstead south of Catlin.
"Don't let them tell you it was straight-line winds," Varner said Tuesday, as he stood among the ruins of the house that his parents built in 1962 and he and his wife, Freda, lived in the last 35 years.
Rick Harper, the Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency's severe weather coordinator, said he was meeting with National Weather Service officials from Lincoln that afternoon to determine whether there was a tornado touchdown in the county. He expected an announcement would be issued Wednesday.
Varner said he saw the tornado with his own eyes, and later, a friend showed him a picture of it that another person captured on camera.
That afternoon, Varner was watching the Chicago Bears football game on TV. He knew a storm was coming, but didn't get up to look outside until his satellite TV network went down.
"They had just come on the TV and told everyone to get out of the stadium," recalled Varner, who went to his kitchen window and saw a black funnel cloud barreling down the fields toward him.
"I didn't think it would hit. If I had, I would've left sooner," said Varner, who said years ago, he watched a tornado take the top off of a large coal mound at the old Peabody Mines, a few miles away.
He ran for the basement, but didn't make it before the twister hit. He and his two dogs took cover under the kitchen table before finally making it downstairs, where he heard the eerie sound of the tornado roaring overhead.
"It sounded worse" than a freight train, Varner said. "This would've drowned out a freight train."
Minutes later, Varner emerged from the basement and called his wife, who was at her part-time job at Lowe's in Danville. When the tornado sirens went off, Freda Varner texted her husband but got no answer.
"When he called, he said, 'I think you ought to come home,'" she said, adding he didn't sound right. "I was expecting the roof to be gone. But there was no house, no barn, no buildings, trees all over the place." Her husband was sitting on a rocking chair that hadn't moved from the back patio. The matching one was blown into a field.
The tornado leveled the three-bedroom house, separate two-car garage, the large barn with a hay mound, corn crib, old workshop, new workshop, large machine shed on the 105-acre farm, where Varner raises corn and soybeans and cattle. It overturned semi tractor trailers — two of them full of corn, now ruined — and scattered debris for miles east of the site.
Within half an hour of coming home, Freda Varner said friends started calling and messaging her on Facebook. Are you OK, and how can we help, they asked.
The Varners said at least 150 friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, even strangers have been by to help clean up, bring water and food and supplies and check on them. More are expected in the coming days, including Catlin High School student council members who will help clean up the debris in the fields.
"I can't tell you how much we appreciate it," Freda Varner said, adding that the support, the couple's faith in God and their positive attitudes have kept them going.
"You have to see the blessings in all of this — all of the family and friends who have come out to help, people we don't even know," added Lisa Martin, Freda's daughter. "There were no lives lost."
Bob Varner said the farm is insured. However, he didn't have a policy for his antique glass bottle collection — the only thing he lost that really meant a lot to him. He saved his first bottle in 1960, and over the years, filled two antique corner cabinets, which belonged to his great grandmother. The tornado destroyed the cabinets, as well.
"We'll make it," said Varner, who at 78 doesn't know whether he will rebuild. Meantime, the couple are staying in a Danville hotel.
"I just may abandon ship and move to Key West," he said with a smile.
When asked if he was serious, his wife, 69, unsnapped her winter coat to reveal a Key West, Fla. sweatshirt. "It's our favorite vacation spot," she said, a grin spreading across her face, too.