Facebook groups help return tornado victims’ scattered possessions

Houses can be rebuilt and cars can be repaired. But deadly tornados like the ones that touched down in Illinois earlier this week are capable of destroying and displacing objects of priceless personal value that cannot be replaced.

At least that was the case before social media.

In the aftermath of this week’s storms, thousands of Illinois residents affected by the tornados have turned to Facebook to locate missing items that, in some cases, were blown miles away.

“It’s a small way to make a difference if you can’t get down there to help,” said Becky Siegel-Harty, of Seneca, Ill. who started a Facebook page that tornado survivors can use to locate personal items lost in the Nov. 17 storms.

This Facebook page, which already has 750 members, has made four successful matches so far, though Siegel-Harty tells the Chicago Tribune she expects more people have privately arranged to return missing items. Most of the found items posted on the site are old photos, though group members have also located missing jewelry, wedding veils and other sentimental mementos. 

Using social media to help return displaced items in the wake of a natural disaster is nothing new. Siegel-Harty said she drew inspiration from similar efforts following the devastating 2011 Joplin, Mo. tornado that killed 161 people and level whole swaths of that town. And hers is just one of several such Facebook groups to pop-up after these recent storms. Dan Davidson, a Dayton, Ohio, resident who grew up in Morris, Ill., started a similar group that already has 6,500 likes and more than 20 successful matches. 

Finding a missing photo or piece of jewelry might seem trivial in the aftermath of a storm that killed 6 people, but for survivors, locating these items is an important first step in the process of piecing their lives back together. 

“If there was a fire in my house, my pictures are the first thing I’d grab after getting my family out of the house,” Brenda Strange told the Tribune.

Strange was able to return a treasured 40th wedding anniversary photo to Beth and Dennis Doolan following the storm. The powerful storm carried the photo some 40 miles from the Doolan’s home in Washington, Ill., to Strange’s front yard in Morris.

Though a 40-mile journey might seem like a lot, meteorologists say it’s not unusual for a tornado. Strong vertical winds are known to suck debris high up into the atmosphere where strong jetstreams can sometimes carry items hundreds of miles. These distances are why social networks may be the best way of returning these items to their owners. 

“Forty years is really something, and even though this is small, hopefully it will give them a little hope,” Strange concluded.

Photo via PHOTOS found from Nov 17, 2013 Illinois Storms/Tornadoes/Facebook

Tim Sampson

Tim Sampson

Tim Sampson is a reporter who focused on the technology, business, and politics beats. He's also an established comedy writer, with work on Comedy Central and in The Onion and ClickHole.