Gifford spirit: 'You just go along with life'
The wind giveth and the wind taketh.
About 4 miles south of Gifford, the immense blades on the turbines of the California Ridge wind farm turned benignly in Monday's gusts, streaming electricity miles away and producing money for local landowners and governments. The wind turbines, more than 100 of them on the rolling hills of northern Champaign and Vermilion counties, were untouched by the vicious tornado of a day earlier.
But Gifford, which sits atop a slight rise in the landscape of northeastern Champaign County and has been spared from tornadoes for generations, wasn't so lucky this time.
"We've had some straight-line winds. We had some damage a few years ago, but it wasn't like this. Never a tornado," said 81-year-old Pete Watson, who has lived in Gifford since 1960 and has been on the village board, the school board and the volunteer fire department. "I don't ever remember a tornado being in this town."
Watson's house on Main Street, about three blocks from Gifford's still-thriving business section, was damaged by the twister, but he thinks it can be repaired.
But there will be no snowbirding this winter for Pete and his wife, Naomi.
"We go to Texas from November to April," Watson said from his front stairs. "But I don't think we're going to make it this time. Twenty-four years we've been going clear down in the Rio Grande Valley. I think before the winter is over we will rebuild, put a new roof on. We're going to stay right here.
"You can't fight this. When you get to be 81 years old, you can't argue about this stuff. You just go along with life."
John Christians, who has lived in Gifford since he was in fifth grade, said he thinks he knows why Gifford couldn't dodge Sunday's twister.
"I'm going to tell you something. Supposedly it came from that direction," he said, pointing to the southwest. "Well, there's a big hill out there and I think that what happened is that tornado hit that hill and it bounced, because from the center of town thataway (to the west) there isn't too much damage, but there's a lot from the center of town this way. I think what it did is it jumped, came over that hill and came down right in the center of town."
Christians, 64, was driving his 6-month-old gleaming white Chevy pickup Sunday afternoon when the tornado struck.
"It was hailing and I was going to pull into my garage because I didn't want the truck out in that stuff," he said. "I just ducked down as far as I could. That truck rocked and rolled and then all of a sudden I heard something hard hit it. There's that 2-by-4 stuck in the side of it right there," Christians said, gesturing toward a short board wedged between the truck's body and its running board. "All of the windows broke out then.
"It was a pretty scary situation and you couldn't see anything, couldn't see nothing. At one time, I unbuckled my seat belt to get down lower and put my hands over my head because all the windows were broken out and the wind was blowing in there 90 miles an hour, or more than that probably. Then I started thinking that if this thing gets picked up and taken away, I want to be buckled in. So I put my seat belt back on and rode it out.
"I was pretty much in the middle of it. I was surprised that truck didn't take off. I was lucky. I was just scared that something was going to come through the cab, a piece of metal or steel or even that 2 by 4. If that thing had been two feet higher it would have come right through my door and ..."
He didn't finish the sentence, but the thought was clear; he was one of the many fortunates of Gifford.
As was Barbara Chaffee, whose one-story house in the center of town simply vanished. Aside from its brick foundation and some debris mixed in with belongings, her house was gone.
"If I had been home when it happened, I probably wouldn't be here now," said Chaffee, who was in Indiana on Sunday. "It was an old house, but it was nice and sturdy. It was two bedrooms with a big front porch, a fireplace, a huge kitchen with wood cabinets and big glass doors. I loved the kitchen. It was an old house, but it had character."
The past tense was appropriate; somewhere northeast of Main and Center streets — who knew how many miles away? — were pieces of that home.
Derin Scott, 40, has lived in Gifford since 1986.
"The only thing I remember that's close to this is when the straight-line winds came through and that tore some stuff up, but nothing like this. And we had an ice storm in 1991. There was almost a half-inch of ice on everything and that did quite a bit of damage to the trees and everything. But nothing of this magnitude," said Scott, whose rental home probably is a loss.
"The town will definitely rebuild. For a lot of people, this is their home. It's a very nice community," he said. "We had people from both ends of town come here just to see what they could do. And there are people from the surrounding communities coming in here to do what they can to help."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.