WASHINGTON — Five years after a tornado forever changed his city, Gary Manier still considers Washington to be a small town.
But it's bigger than it was Nov. 17, 2013, the Sunday the tornado touched down and forever changed Manier's mayoralty.
Back then, Washington had about 15,100 residents. Although more than 1,100 structures were destroyed or damaged in the storm, the Washington population today is above 16,500 and might be approaching 17,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
That Washington has continued to grow despite what probably was the biggest disruption in city history might be among the biggest tributes to its residents, according to Manier.
During a recent interview, the 17-year mayor cited population variances in Joplin, Mo., after a stronger tornado there in 2011 killed 161 people.
"That was what I was worried about the most, from day one," Manier said regarding a potential residential exodus. "I was really concerned about that. (But) I think people really wanted to be in Washington, and they wanted to stay. So we were very blessed.
"If we can continue to keep that (small-town) feel, I think we'll continue to have people move into our community."
The people already in Washington in late 2013 moved heaven and earth to rebuild their homes, Manier suggested. Included were public-works employees and others who put streets back together.
In some of the older neighborhoods, the tornado provided an unfortunate excuse to remodel. Some houses in some subdivisions, including Devonshire Estates and Washington Estates, were at least 60 years of age.
"God love each and everyone there, but would they have remodeled, rebuilt, put new roofs on, new siding, new brick?" Manier said. "It's become a brand-new neighborhood. The look of some of those subdivisions may have been getting a little bit tired and older. But it was still their home.
"If you drove through there today, you wouldn't even know the tornado went through there."
But those who resided there know. So does Manier.
The mayor's job in Washington is considered part time. But in the wake of the tornado, which led to the deaths of three people, Manier became a full-time advocate for his city.
Sometimes, it entailed helping Washington residents try to receive assistance from multiple sources in the rebuilding effort. Through private donations and recruitment of volunteers, that usually worked.
An attempt to receive federal disaster aid didn't work. The state covered that expense. It also made strange work fellows of Manier, a Republican, and the Democratic governor of Illinois at the time, Pat Quinn.
The state-sponsored lifeline led Manier to endorse Quinn in his futile 2014 bid for re-election.
Manier became the face of Washington in local, regional and national media. He also became good friends with Peter Schivarelli, manager of the legendary rock group Chicago, which performed a benefit concert for Washington tornado victims.
Schivarelli donated $1,000 to Manier's 2017 re-election campaign. The mayor and the music impresario renewed their relationship last week, when Chicago played at the Peoria Civic Center.
But for Manier, at least, some aspects of post-storm life aren't exactly another Saturday in the park.
He said he has not watched a special report The Weather Channel produced about the tornado. The five-year anniversary, and the attention that accompanies it, brings back memories as if they happened yesterday.
Despite the physical reconstruction, part of the psyche of every Washingtonian who lived through the storm probably never will heal, according to Manier.
"I never try to use the word 'recovered,'" he said. "I always say we're recovering, because emotionally I don't think we'll ever recover completely. The recovery will be ongoing."
At the same time, Manier and his city have progressed, and not just in population. When they look back, they want to see more than only a twister.
"I don't want to be known for that Sunday on the 17th of November of 2013," Manier said. "I want to be known for what happened on Nov. 18, 2013, when we went to work and helped each other to recover."
Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.