Fairdale Tornado: Six Months Later
It’s been six months since a deadly tornado hit Fairdale, Illinois. Some residents are ready to rebuild, while others prefer not to start new memories there.
85-year-old Clem Schultz is back in Fairdale with his dog, a white Shepard. He’s meeting his former neighbor Joe Wiegand. For the past several years, Wiegand has traveled the country as a well-known Teddy Roosevelt repriser. He still owned property in Fairdale.
Clem wants to show Joe a video he took of the tornado from the upper level of his house:
CLEM: About two minutes into this, my house came down and knocked the phone out of my hand and it kept recording.
JOE: So now you are still standing up taking video right now?
CLEM: Right about now is when I realized ‘uh-oh.’
JOE: See the shaking? Your house is shaking apart right now, isn’t it?
CLEM: Yeah. At this point, I was laying under several feet of rubble, wondering why I was still alive.
The video cuts to silence.
Reality Sets In
Clem swears he thought the storm would veer off. But minutes later, everything has changed as an emergency responder finds him.
CLEM: He said ‘okay, now you’re by this beam, I want you to sit down and put your feet down here on the floor, but don’t look down.’ I said ‘why don’t look down?’ He said, ‘because your wife is right under you and she’s dead.’
JOE: You look down?
CLEM: Of course. I reached down, and got her pulse…no pulse. We had propane leaking. They told me, ‘you gotta get out of here.’
Clem says he doesn’t plan to rebuild--too many memories. He is looking at moving closer to his kids.
"Just Use It To Save Lives"
“The reason Clem wants this video to be out there is to save lives.”
That’s Luke Odell, a PhD student studying tornado science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was in Fairdale on April 9th chasing the tornado when he first met Clem.
Over the past few months, Clem has had to visit the V-A hospital in Madison for back issues related to the tornado. Each time he has an appointment, he also touches base with Luke and his research into the storm:
“If you see an up close and personal view of something that deadly, that’s going to drive home the point of getting out of the way to somewhere safe and ensuring that you keep your family safe. I think it can be used both from the research perspective but also a public awareness perspective as well.”
Researcher Luke Odell says seeing what happened in Fairdale firsthand changed how he views his research, saying he now fully understands the emotional toll. He’s even working on a documentary showing both sides of a storm, from the chaser's perspective and the victim's. That includes Clem’s video.
“You can’t learn everything about the weather from behind a desk,” Luke Odell said.
Back in Fairdale, Joe Wiegand stands on a few crumbling steps and looks into the basement of an old church he renovated before it was destroyed. He sees new construction just across the road where Dave and Shari Novotny shared a home.
Dave Novotny says he has seen good come out of tragedy.
"We were standing right here in the driveway one day, maybe two or three days afterwards, and all of the sudden, hundreds of people walked up. They had chainsaws and they were ready to work…[chokes up] It still gets to me now. It was an amazing experience.”
His wife Shari tells Joe the process to re-build has been moving along pretty well:
JOE: What do you call it? When are we going to the house?
SHARI: Yeah, that’s what we do at the end of the day. It’s like Christmas. You come out and say ‘what’s new today?’
After seeing the progress six months on, Joe Wiegand is optimistic.
JOE: I’ll tell ya, when I saw Clem, I was so relieved ‘cause I saw the same Clem. Resilient. They made this generation out of leather, bailing wire, and duct tape. It was good to see him. He looks good and sounds good. He’s still Clem and that’s a good thing.
CLEM: Yeah. I think so.
Still Accepting Donations
The DeKalb County Long-Term Recovery Corporation is a volunteer-run group founded after the April 9 event. President Bill Nicklas says he has been "delighted" with the progress.
According to the group, as of Sept. 1, four new foundations are underway in Fairdale, and three in rural DeKalb County. The groups estimates seven more foundations will be dug in the next few months. Five owners are completing the rehabilitation of their homes.
Nicklas says a new community septic field could be completed by Nov. 1.