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Students Return To Class As Feds Begin Official Tornado Damage Assessment

CBS 2's Chris Martinez got a look on Wednesday at the worst damage in Washington, Ill. (Credit: Chris Martinez/CBS 2)

CBS 2’s Chris Martinez got a look on Wednesday at the worst damage in Washington, Ill. (Credit: Chris Martinez/CBS 2)

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Updated 11/21/13 – 11:04 a.m.

WASHINGTON, Ill. (CBS) – Federal officials will be meeting with state and local authorities in downstate Washington on Thursday to begin evaluating the damage caused to homes and businesses on Sunday, when tornadoes devastated the small town and other parts of central Illinois.

CBS 2’s Brad Edwards reports officials in the town of Washington have estimated more than 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the storm.

Forecasters have said at least 15 tornadoes touched down in Illinois on Sunday. Six people were killed in the storms.

The Illinois Emergency Management Agency will meet with officials from FEMA, the U.S. Small business Administration, and various local authorities in Washington on Thursday to begin official damage assessments. The information will be used to determine how much federal disaster assistance will be provided down the road.

Meantime, students in Washington will begin returning to class for the first time since a tornado tore through the city on Sunday. Not all schools in the town will be open yet, and some kids won’t be going back to classes right away, as many continue to focus on cleanup and rebuilding.

Students at Washington Community High School walked a walked they always had; same steps, same school, but everything else was different, four days after a tornado ravaged their small town.

“I think it’s a bit soon, but we gotta come back sometime,” Emily Seegers said.

Alex Phelps said he was excited to be back.

It was a late start for school, with classes not beginning until 9 a.m.

Grief counselors also were on-hand, but most students said they’d be consoled by simply seeing friends they hadn’t since before the tornado.

“I’m excited to see all my friends; to make sure they’re okay. I know they are. To see them in person is the best,” Kyla Huntsman said.

There were some noted absences, as some students had more pressing matters, after their homes were destroyed by the twister. At least four of those not attending were football players, who were helping teammates and coaches who lost their homes.

The Washington Panthers football team has served as a beacon of hope for the community, as the team has a 12-0 record for the first time in school history, and will go to Springfield on Saturday to play Sacred Heart-Griffin in the Class 5A semifinals.

Casey Danley, a running back for the football team, said, “You go from being happy to don’t know what to think.”

Nine football players’ homes, and two coaches’ homes were destroyed by the twister.

“It’s been pretty hectic,” linebacker Mason Chockley said. “We went from our highest high on Saturday night to the lowest low Sunday morning. So it’s been kind of just all around the place; just seeing everyone in devastation. No homes. It just kills you to see it.”

Saturday’s playoff game will be Washington’s first football semifinal in 28 years, a game that takes on even more significance in the aftermath of the tornado.

“There’s definitely a little bit more pressure, but it’s all just the same thing; just Saturdays. Go out there, try to get a win. Just do what we do best,” Chockley said.

As donations continue to pour in to help the victims in Washington and other towns in central Illinois, the Chicago Cubs have been organizing their own relief effort to collect supplies.

The Cubs have been asking Chicagoans to donate items to help tornado victims, and bring them to the Purple Lot at Wrigley Field, on Clark Street, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, or 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday. Those supplies will then be taken to distribution centers in Peoria on Friday.

The most needed supplies include tote bags, plastic trash cans, storage bins, gloves, non-perishable food, bottled water, toiletries, baby supplies, flashlights, batteries, and manual can openers.

The Cubs’ donation drive follows a similar effort by the Chicago Bears earlier this week. Four current players and several former Bears traveled to Coal City and Diamond earlier this week to hand out supplies, and offer some encouragement to the storm-ravaged residents in those two towns.