Gifford begins to pick up the pieces
GIFFORD — Starting today, Gifford residents will likely define events in their lives as things that happened before the tornado and after the tornado.
Residents were waking to the devastation of scores of homes in the community of about 975 that happened in a matter of minutes right around 1 p.m. Sunday.
Miraculously, only four people were reported injured in that community, said Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh, adding that none of the injuries was believed serious.
"The damage assessment will be done in daylight," Walsh said Sunday night. "I have told people at least 20 destroyed and at least 20 heavily damaged. I've also heard a total of 75 very seriously damaged or destroyed."
As darkness fell, a full moon emerged, and the winds from the freak fall storm were still whipping debris about.
Walsh said there were no reports of missing persons. Firefighters from at least 16 surrounding communities pitched in all day to make sure of that. Residents were still working to secure their homes and salvage valuables, and state troopers and sheriff's deputies were out in force to make sure that looters weren't tempted to help themselves.
Walsh discouraged would-be volunteers from coming to the village Sunday night. Roads around Gifford had been packed with area residents being detoured as well as gawkers wanting a closer look at the destruction. The parking lot at Gordyville, an auction arena on U.S. 136 west of town, was filled with cars throughout the afternoon and evening.
Jeremy Mitchell of the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency confirmed that three tornadoes touched down in Champaign County, all around 1 p.m. — in Gifford, Flatville and in the country near Broadlands.
In southern Champaign County, Mitchell said, there were reports of high voltage power lines down and "significant damage to agricultural buildings, second stories of homes, roofs."
There was also serious damage to several homes in Douglas and Vermilion counties as well as widespread power outages across the state.
Champaign and Douglas counties have sought disaster declarations to help them get state or federal money to help with the expense of handling the catastrophe.
Not long after the tornado blew through, Gifford resident Pat Whitaker, 82, sat wrapped in a blanket in her yard, her nose slightly bloodied.
She was upstairs in her bedroom when the tornado sirens sounded. She started to head downstairs when she was swept off her feet.
When she opened her eyes, she said, "Oh my God. I'm outside. You see this on TV all of the time, but you never think it will happen to you".
A mile south and about three miles west of Gifford, Jeff and Brenda Mifflin were watching the storm roll in from a picture window of their home at 2077 County Road 2800 N.
"All of a sudden it got really loud and we headed down to the basement. It was pitch black and we started calling out to each other," said Brenda Mifflin, whose son was in Rantoul when it hit. "We kept holding on and holding on to each other."
The tornado leveled their house and their garage but they were not physically injured.
It also made several power poles look like broken toothpicks along County Road 2100 E just north of Flatville, for example. There were reports of downed poles and lines throughout Champaign County.
The tornado came from the southwest and moved to the northeast.
People walking through Gifford had to step over loose utility lines, broken glass, roofing materials and other debris, and some people were riding all-terrain vehicles to get across town.
Gifford Grade School Superintendent Rod Grimsley rushed to the community from his home in St. Joseph to assess damage to the school.
"It's just devastating here in town," Grimsley said. (The school is) right on the edge of it. It's from the school north and the downtown areas to about (U.S.) 136. It's horrible. There's probably 50 to 60 homes leveled. Most of those that got hit, there's no way they can do anything with them," Grimsley said.
Grimsley said the roof of the bus barn collapsed on the school buses inside and he couldn't get in to assess the extent of the damage. A portion of the school roof was damaged. He said there would not be school for several days as the town is without power or natural gas.
Land line phone service also appeared to be cut off.
The Red Cross and the Salvation Army began ministering to the displaced, many of whom were reuniting with loved ones at the Country Health nursing home on U.S. 136. The nursing home, running generators for power, was serving as a temporary shelter.
Country Health Administrator Chris Kasper estimated the nursing home could house "50 to 100, maybe more." He said the Red Cross was supplying cots, pillows and blankets and the Salvation Army had set up its canteen.
"Right now we're the shelter for the town," Kasper said. "We're taking people as they come in, feeding them and housing them at least through the night."
Kasper said his staff — the entire staff was called in — and Red Cross volunteers treated minor injuries such as scrapes and bruises.
Those who have lost their homes are "in shock," Kasper said.
"It's bad. I've never seen anything like it. From the vantage point of the nursing home, it looks like Main Street (and) east is probably gone," he said.
Rantoul Press Editor Dave Hinton and News-Gazette photographers John Dixon and Robin Scholz contributed to this story.