WASHINGTON, Ill. (CBS) — Seven months after a rare November tornado tore through downstate Washington, destroying or damaging more than 1,100 homes and claiming three lives, residents have taken some significant steps to rebuilding their town.

Washington Mayor Gary Manier said, if you stop and listen, you can hear the progress. More than 650 building permits have been issued.

“It’s the new sound. It’s the backup alarms. It’s the nail guns. You know, the smell even of sawdust,” he said. “I continue to say there’s hope in the air in Washington, Illinois.”

On Nov. 17, 2013, a powerful tornado cut a path through Washington, still visible on satellite images.

Manier said the signs of recovery are everywhere nearly seven months later, and he can’t thank volunteers enough.

“Just seeing Chicago, how they’ve kind of adopted Washington, Illinois; and what they’ve done to help us through this. We’re going to get better because of the great people in this country,” he said.

The mayor said former Washington residents who are living in nearby communities because they can’t go home yet still return to the town to spend their money at local businesses. He said they’re anxious to get back permanently.

“I kind of knew what we were made of, but then again I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to show in how resilient we really are,” he said. “I think a lot of that is the faith base. A lot of folks were in church that day, and I think we continue to look to Him for guidance, and I think it’s helped us,” Manier said.

Initially, Manier believed it would take about a year to rebuild, but now he estimates it will be closer to two years – in part, because the harsh winter left residents unable to begin rebuilding their destroyed homes until April.