Gifford Recovers in 2014, Looks Ahead

A home destroyed by the November 2013 tornado in Gifford.

A home destroyed by the November 17th, 2013 tornado in Gifford

(Sean Powers/WILL)

Monday marks a year since a half-mile wide tornado tore through the Champaign County town of Gifford. But a visit today to the community of 1,000 shows many signs of resilience.

The 140 mile per hour winds on November 17, 2013, destroyed homes and businesses, snapped trees and power lines and shut down the water treatment plant. 

In the face of that destruction, residents say the community came together and largely rebuilt their town in the weeks and months that followed.

“I remember texting my brother (on the West Coast) saying what a gorgeous day it is, 70 degrees and sunny, it’s perfectly fine,” said Mike Swinney, who lives in rural Penfield, a couple miles outside of Gifford.

Swinney, who also owns the The North Forty bar in Gifford, said it was unseasonably warm for mid-November, and he was on the porch with his family, just before 1 p.m.  

When he saw the funnel cloud, he rushed his family to the basement. Minutes later, the tornado hit. 

"The roof was gone, my shed was gone, cars were gone, so that’s when reality set in,” Swinney said. “You don’t think clearly after something like that, you know… we started taking all the doors off the hinges, boarding up all windows.  Why, we have no idea, just to secure what we have left in there, cause obviously, we couldn’t stay in there, we knew that.  So we had to leave and go somewhere else, but then we realized, we couldn’t go anywhere, we didn’t have no cars.”

The F3 tornado had already made its way from the southwest through Gifford, about two hours after hitting Washington, Illinois, by the time it destroyed the Swinney home. 

In Gifford, a handful of people were hurt.  No one died.

Down the street from Swinney’s bar, Len Sanderlin runs an ice cream shop in town. 

His home was one of dozens destroyed in the tornado. One of Sanderlin’s first memories after the storm is of the community coming together to help.

“Within about I’d say 30 to 45 minutes after the tornado came through, the street was lined with tractors, backhoes, people with chainsaws, trucks, clearing things out, getting the street cleared out,” he said.  “They had this Main Street cleared out - probably within an hour and a half or two hours.”

That kind of resiliency could be seen further up the street, at Bibb’s Country Restaurant. 

Owner Lorin Schluter said by 7 p.m. on November 17th, the restaurant was hooked up to a generator and serving electrical workers, emergency personnel and volunteers. 

For a few days, Schluter said they prepared food around the clock.

“We had a couple of girls who lived here in town, they helped us, and a couple of people who weren’t even employed give us a hand, I’ve got a couch in the back room, that’s where I stayed,” he said.   “And there was times when no one was manning the place, and just come help themselves to coffee or pie or whatever.  Open doors.”

On top of feeding the help that in from the community, and from far away as Minnesota, Schluter said his restaurant served as a community gathering place.

“A lot of people came in here, a day or two later, were in shock,” he said.  “We were just doing what we could do to make them feel welcome, you know?  The town is really strong.”

A drive through Gifford today shows lots of construction.  A number of homes are being rebuilt.  Many downtown businesses also had to rebuild, including Rademacher’s Building Center, a local lumberyard and hardware center, Robin Clements’ Body Shop, and The North Forty.

After the tornado, anyone who didn’t already live in Gifford wasn’t allowed within the town for a couple of days.  So Swinney could only speculate on what happened to his business.

“We heard rumors that the bank was destroyed,” he said.  “I said ‘well, if the bank’s destroyed, then we’re definitely gone.  A state trooper stopped us out here (entering town), I told him ‘I’ve got to make sure we’re secure.  And remember coming down Main Street and thinking that a bomb just went off here in town.  We didn’t realize anything that had happened other than (our home) – we didn’t realize it went through Gifford.”

North Forty opened the week after the tornado, but saw too much structural damage to remain there long-term.  It’s moving across Main Street soon.

Inside Mike Swinney's bar, North Forty, that sustained some tornado damage, and will re-open soon across Main Street.

Inside Mike Swinney's North Forty bar in Gifford, which sustained some structural damage and will be moving across Main Street soon.

There’s also progress on the number of new homes completed or near completion.

“I think to date I’ve issued around 55 – somewhere in the mid-50’s to date for new homes to be built,” said Eric Rademacher, Gifford's Zoning Commissioner. “And there’s a few others that are still others in the process, I haven’t issued yet, but they’re talking about building again.”

Gifford Fire Chief Rich McFadden, who lost his home last year, said rebuilding would be further along had it not been for last winter’s brutal conditions.

“We had our foundation poured New Year’s Eve, but then because January and February is so brutal, but then couldn’t get the carpenters in,” he said. “It was just wasn’t safe – it was too cold.  Too cold and too much snow.”

While most people affected by the storm plan to rebuild, the loss of homes and businesses, and the tax base they provide, poses a new challenge for Gifford. 

Many homes are rebuilt, but this boarded up home is one sign of the work that remains in Gifford.

Gifford Grade School Superintendent Rod Grimsley said the school expects a drop in the assessed valuation of the town’s properties of $2.5 million heading into next year. 

That means less revenue from property taxes to fund services and infrastructure. 

"There’s really no way to recover that – you just have to get the properties re-built, and back on the tax rolls,” said Champaign County Emergency Management spokesman Rick Atterberry.  “But that’s an impact on the governmental bodies that isn’t well known, but is very real for the policy makers to try to deal with.”

Dustin Ehler is a village trustee in Gifford.  He's not sure yet what the financial hit to will be, but he says the town will need to borrow money.

"We've got a lot of drainage issues in town we're working through, at end of the day we know we're going to have to end up borrowing money, but what that number is, it's too early to tell,” he said.

Gifford Grade School reopened a week after last year’s tornado.  45 students were displaced when the storm hit, living with family or friends, or in rental properties, many of them outside Gifford.

It hasn’t been easy for Mike Swinney’s 12-year old daughter Emma. 

The family has moved three times since the tornado while their house was being rebuilt.  Just a few weeks ago, they moved back in.

“I think my room is still upstairs, but we don’t have an upstairs,” she said.  “So I always forget – because I’m so used to our old house.”

Julia Mulvaney, 13, said her family was expecting to patch things up a bit when her home was damaged, but their insurance company said they had to move. 

“I was in Royal for like, six months and we finally moved back to Gifford last April maybe?  And so it’s just been a little weird,” said Mulvaney, who now lives in a new house in another part of Gifford. “I’ve already moved back in, but it’s not the same.”

The village did benefit earlier this year from a $650-thousand USDA Rural Development grant to replace its damaged water tower, but it could take six months to a year to replace.  

The water treatment plant that was destroyed should be replaced by the end of the month. 

Gifford continues to face any number of challenges, and life may not be the same for some time.  But resident say they are rebuilding and describe the town as strong and resilient. 

(other photos by Jeff Bossert/WILL)

Story source: WILL