News Local/State

Emotional Support Is Part Of Fairdale Recovery

New playground equipment in the center of Fairdale

New playground equipment in the center of Fairdale. Jenna Dooley/WNIJ

It’s been one year since a deadly tornado struck Fairdale, in northern DeKalb County, killing two women and wreaking havoc in the small unincorporated community.

The last year has been filled with many decisions for the residents, who were left with very little after the storm passed. Now there are new beginnings and new challenges.

The new Fairdale tornado siren fired off earlier this week -- as it will at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday of the month.

You've probably heard this routine test in your own community, but Fairdale’s siren wasn’t here before the tornado.

The Novotny's cat in her new home (left) Fairdale's new siren a couple of blocks from the Novotny's home (right)

Photo Credit: Susan Stephens/WNIJ

Shari Novotny’s cat scatters. Her dog is also getting used to some of the changes.

“The tornado siren just went off because they test it and he panics," she said. "I suppose he was in the house for a week and he heard all the fire engines going off. That one, every time he hears thunder, we have to sedate him.”

They all share a new home. Modern fireplace. Deep brown wood floors. But the backyard view is a lot different from the old farmhouse that was here before the tornado.

Novotny and her husband bought the land because of a row of established evergreen trees which were lost in the storm. She loved to work in her yard. She has a lot more work ahead of her.

“I have about ten loads of black dirt coming in at the end of the month," she said, "and we will start re-seeding and planting again.”

The Novotny's backyard view before and after the tornado

Photo Credit: Susan Stephens/WNIJ

The view will still be different for quite a while. Now it's open farmland that carries a lot of wind.

She's planning to create a bird sanctuary to entice them to come back, even though the trees are gone. 

Her front window also has a very different perspective -- a mix of new construction and open lots.

“It was a little town. People could have just moved away and gone away and taken their insurance money and went off on their merry way," Novotny said, "and could have just left things a mess, but they didn’t.”

This Saturday, recovery groups and local dignitaries will mark the day at a park with new play equipment and benches. There will be a groundbreaking for a new home. Shari expects it to be an emotional day.

“Everybody is different as far as how they view this," she said. "I talked to one of my neighbors the other day. He said, ‘Are you going to go to the thing?’ I said, 'Yeah, probably.' He said, 'I don’t think I’m going.’ I said, ‘How come?’ He said, ‘Well, I just don’t need to do that.’

"It was kind of an understanding that some people don’t want to go back and just [want to] move on, and there’s some people who really need that. There’s going to be a whole bunch of people here, and I think there’s going to be emotions here."

Bill Nicklas worked out of a trailer parked on the edge of town most of the year. He was president of the DeKalb County Long-Term Recovery Corporation. The start-up group relied on donations, since federal funding was not made available. His role this year has been as problem-solver, and many agree that he's a big part of the reason Fairdale is as far along as it is today.

In addition to the practical matters of rebuilding, he says residents have shared with him how deeply the loss of life and property have affected the community.

"There's still an emotional toll that was taken that hasn't been fully restored," Nicklas said. "It's new, but it is a little bit sanitized, if you will. They are going to have to get used to the new reality."

Deanna Cada co-chairs the long-term recovery group’s spiritual/emotional sub-committee. The DeKalb County Mental Health Board allocated money to ease the process for residents to get counseling and others services for what she calls “emotional reactions” associated with the storm.

“Last year we spent about $20,000 making sure that the people of Fairdale and those affected by the tornado were cared for in an emotional way," Cada said.

The county has agreed to extend those benefits past the anniversary and through the end of this year. She says they will assess the needs of the residents again after that.

This bench serves as a memorial to the two people who died in the Fairdale tornado

Photo Credit: Jenna Dooley/WNIJ

“There are very common anniversary reactions," Cada explained. "Anxiety, having nightmares, just having some guilt. Survivor’s guilt is a very common reaction. Those things, because of the anniversary date, can start coming to the surface. These are all normal reactions. For some people, it gets to the point where it starts complicating life a little bit.”

Kris Habermehl is with the Kirkland Fire District and was among the first responders after the tornado. He remains involved in the day-to-day recovery. He says the real test will come after this weekend.

“After the cameras are switched off, and after the lights and the hubbub and the chaos kind of goes away, everybody wants to be remembered for what they had to endure here and what they still face," he said. "The sense that, not only will Fairdale always exist and exist in their mind’s eye, but that the new Fairdale will still be a place to make new memories and share that with the generations to come.”

Fairdale homeowner Shari Novotny says it is going to be a beautiful place to live.

WNIJ's Susan Stephens contributed to this report.