Replacement work has started for homeowners whose yards are full of 2021 Naperville tornado debris

On a typical summer day, Joe Zhou’s children would be running barefoot in their grassy Naperville back yard having water gun fights or playing games.

But that was before an EF3 tornado struck the area near the Ranchview Drive and 75th Street on the city’s north side in June 2021, putting the yard off limits for any kind of use to ensure no one stepped on the glass, metal and other debris embedded in the ground.

The unexpected fallout from that destructive storm might finally be resolved this summer and fall. Thanks to $1 million in state funding and $500,000 from the city of Naperville — both attained through the efforts of the community group Naperville Tornado Relief — money is now available to strip the soil from damaged yards and replace it with clean dirt and grass seed. Its work most insurance policies did not cover.

With the funding, 82 families can take advantage of the environmental remediation work. Of that number, 66 will be receiving yard replacements.

Work began Aug. 15, said Kristy Kennedy, co-founder of Naperville Tornado Relief, and should be completed in October.

State Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, D-Naperville, helped secure the $1 million in state relief funding and said during the event she was proud to play a role in helping people get back on their feet.

“It’s never truer than during times of tragedy and suffering that we’re stronger together — and we see this when neighbors step up to help neighbors in the wake of disaster,” Stava-Murray said in a statement. “Recovery is not an individual struggle but a collective endeavor. We can’t call ourselves a decent or a well-functioning society if we don’t choose compassion and benevolence when members of our community are burdened by hardship.”

Zhou’s yard has already been done, he said. Four inches of contaminated topsoil was removed and replaced. New grass seed has been planted.

“My house had a lot of windows broken and we had glass everywhere,” he said. “Even after trying to clean it up ourselves several times, we’d still find pieces. Now I’m hoping next summer the kids can enjoy the yard again.”

The yard replacement cost added up to about $1.2 million, Kennedy said at an event Thursday to announce that the work was finally underway.

Mayor Scott Wehrli thanked Kennedy and Kelly Doughtery for co-founding the neighborhood organization and nonprofit M.P. Foundation, which stepped up to serve as the group’s fiscal agent by using its charitable tax standing to distribute the funds.

“We can’t take away the memories of the devastation that occurred two years ago,” Wehrli said, “(but) we can help those most impacted create new outdoor memories.”

With the approval of funding, the city stipulated it be used by the neighborhood and the foundation only for environmental cleanup work requested through applications submitted by Naperville property owners whose properties are within the designated tornado damage boundary lines.

Naperville Tornado Relief established criteria to determine which properties would qualify for state and city grants.

Resident Katie Long Piper said she is looking forward to putting the constant reminder of the tornado — her unusable yard — behind her.

“I worked very hard in getting over the trauma of this because I don’t think anyone realizes how hard it is to lose your house,” said Long Piper, who had to leave her house for three months while repairs were made. “It’s your safe spot. You have nowhere to go to decompress and process this.”