Heard on the Hill

Tornado Strikes Congressman’s Hometown, Grazes McDonald’s His Dad Built

Rodney Davis breaks out the chain saw after rare December tornadoes

The McDonald’s co-owned by Davis’ dad and brother took a hit when a tornado passed through town. (Courtesy Rep. Rodney Davis)

After a rare December tornado hit his hometown in central Illinois over the weekend, Republican Rep. Rodney Davis is on cleanup duty. 

While his own family and property went unharmed, many neighbors got hit hard. And the twister banged up the sign of the business where Davis first worked as a teenager — a local McDonald’s franchise built by his dad.

Illinois may get its share of tornadoes, but December is usually a quiet month. That wasn’t the case on Saturday in Taylorville, population 11,000. A half-mile-wide windstorm barreled through in the early evening, injuring more than 20 people.

Davis was in a different part of the district when the tornado hit. Within hours he was back in the town where he grew up, breaking out the chain saw. 

“In small towns, we all know each other and help our neighbors in times like these,” said the third-term congressman, reached by phone on Sunday as the cleanup effort began.

The damage to the McDonald’s, now co-owned by his dad and brother, was just a “flesh wound.” Nearby, many buildings were in much worse shape. Pulling tools from the back of his truck, Davis sawed up trees and cleared debris. He also spent time with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who came to survey the destruction. 

More than 100 homes were severely damaged, according to an early estimate. Schools canceled classes on Monday, the Red Cross set up a shelter in a local church, and the electric company scrambled to restore power to thousands without it.

Those scenes were repeated throughout central and southwest Illinois. Taylorville wasn’t the only town grappling with an unwelcome December surprise — roughly 20 tornadoes touched down in the state the same day, according to the National Weather Service.

When asked whether the damage would be enough to get a major disaster declaration and then perhaps some emergency appropriations, Davis said it wasn’t likely. But he did point to legislation he sponsored meant to deal with just such scenarios.

The measure requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency, when making recommendations to the president about a major disaster declaration, to give greater weight to severe local impact and to recent multiple disasters hitting the same area. 

That requirement made it into the final version of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill passed in October, and the agency must report back to Congress within a year to share its progress.

Davis said he never expected that new provision to hit so close to home just a couple of months later. 

While Illinois is hundreds of miles from the Midwestern strip known as tornado alley, those traditional boundaries are changing, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature. Over the last four decades, tornado frequency has risen in the Prairie State and other parts of the Midwest and Southeast. The one that hit Taylorville packed winds of 155 mph and cut a path more than 11 miles long, making it an EF-3 on the Fujita scale.

Davis is a member of the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus and sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which shares oversight of FEMA.

An unexpected schedule change means he can keep his sleeves rolled up in his district this week. As Congress mourns former President George H.W. Bush, most lawmaking business in D.C. has been canceled

Watch: George H.W. Bush Lies In State in the Capitol Rotunda

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