Just two blocks away from his childhood home in Washington on Monday, Sean Johnson M.S. ’13 was lost.

The Washington neighborhood where Johnson grew up was ravaged by Sunday’s EF-4 tornado, erasing entire streets worth of homes. Without landmarks, Johnson struggled to find his family’s badly damaged home Monday when he returned to survey the damage and help his parents remove their belongings.

“For me, it was just surreal,” Johnson told STATEside on Tuesday. “Everything I once knew was gone.”

Johnson’s family home was one of several hundred destroyed or damaged in Washington, Illinois, where one person also was killed in Sunday’s storms. The same system caused minor property damage to the Illinois State campus and has inspired a student-led tornado relief effort this week.

Johnson living room

Upstairs looking at the roof of the Johnson living room.

Johnson, who is the assistant director of development and sales for Redbird Athletics, lived in Washington his whole childhood. The home that saw its back end torn off in Sunday’s storm was the first one in that neighborhood, and it’s where Johnson called home until going off to college as an undergrad.

The Johnson home is so badly damaged it will have to be demolished. Despite that, Johnson said they consider themselves lucky, because his mother (who was home at the time) was not injured and that the house didn’t collapse—allowing them to collect some of their belongings afterward.

Sean Johnson

Alum Sean Johnson

On Monday, Johnson drove back to Washington to help his parents, and several other family members and friends were also pitching in. At one point, 30 people were there helping out.

“It was a very humbling experience that people really did want to help out,” said Johnson, who earned his master’s degree in sport management at Illinois State last May.

“That speaks to Central Illinois as a whole, and especially to Washington right now,” he added.

As storms raced across Illinois on Sunday, the Johnson family was scattered. Johnson himself was in Normal, with one brother in the Chicago area, another in Champaign-Urbana, his father at church across town in Washington, and his mother at home. Cell phone connections were unreliable.

“For an hour or so, we couldn’t communicate with each other at the same time,” he said.

It was scary, but Johnson eventually got a text saying mom and dad were safe, but the house was lost.

“We’re counting our blessings, and we’re very lucky,” Johnson said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.