Restoration of Naperville lawns blighted by 2021 tornado finally complete: ‘It just feels a fresh start’

Katie Long-Piper has waited years to see grass growing around her house.

Albeit, for mid-January, progress is slow. But for a while, she didn’t think she’d ever see life in her lawn again.

What a difference tenacity and good neighbors can make.

It took months, but work to replace and revive the dozens of lawns left devastated by debris from an EF3 tornado that struck north Naperville in June 2021 is finally complete.

Long-Piper’s was one of the last of 81 homes in the Ranch View neighborhood helped through the remediation project. The decades-long resident of Naperville, whose back yard was left uninhabitable after the June 2021 disaster, got her lawn back in late fall. Seeing the space rebuilt was a relief, she said.

A clean slate.

“I kind of took a deep breath, and said OK. … Now I can plant what I want, do what I want without fear of cutting my hands open or running into other things. Everything is clean and ready to go,” she said.

The replacement work was headed by a group of community volunteers. The group, called Naperville Tornado Relief, formed in 2022 to make sure the homeowners hit hardest by the tornado got the help they needed to fully recover.

It was co-founded by a pair of Ranch View residents, Kristy Kennedy and Kelly Dougherty, who weren’t directly impacted by the storm but saw their neighbors’ wreckage firsthand. Together, they partnered with local nonprofit M.P. Foundation to raise enough money to fill the financial gaps not covered by tornado victims’ insurance plans.

In all, Naperville Tornado Relief accrued $1.5 million towards the effort, made possible by $1 million in state funding and $500,000 from the city of Naperville.

With the money, Naperville Tornado Relief retained contractors to strip the soil from any yards embedded with glass, metal, plastic and other debris from the tornado and replace it with new dirt and grass seed.

Each individual lawn replacement took four to five days, according to Dougherty. Two contractors, Balanced Environments Inc. and Hively Landscaping, did most of the remediation, working in tandem block by block. Not every household Naperville Tornado Relief benefited received a full lawn replacement, but the vast majority did, Dougherty said.

The restoration work wrapped up in late October. Drawing the project to a close, Dougherty said, was “rewarding.”

“When you saw how horribly devastated the neighborhood was, I mean it was just depressing to go through there,” she said. “For a lot of us (living there), we didn’t have a choice. We had to go in and out of that area. And so now, to see that the homes have been fixed and improved and then the new lawns and new landscaping, it just feels like a fresh start for everyone.

“It’s been mentally healing, beyond the physical part … to not live in a destruction zone every day.”

For their contributions to the Naperville Tornado Relief efforts, Dougherty and Kennedy were honored this week with a proclamation from the Naperville City Council. It thanked the women for bringing not just tangible aid but hope to tornado victims, their neighbors.

“It really feels like a good sense of closure,” Dougherty said. “I think for a lot of people, it’s really helped them find a new beginning.”

Long-Piper, for one, can’t wait to start gardening in the summer.

“Before, every time I walked out to my back yard,” she said, “all I saw was debris and ugliness, and it just kind of gets to you day after day. OK, this tornado happened and I can’t escape it. … And now, when I walk outside, I just see a clean slate ready for a new adventure and another beautiful yard grown.

“I know I’m going to find a lot of peace in planting.”

Lavender, Long-Piper said, will be the first thing she grows.