Knocked flat by tornadoes, Gifford starts to fight back (w/video)

Knocked flat by tornadoes, Gifford starts to fight back (w/video)

GIFFORD — Lorraine Buenting crouched behind her fireplace during Sunday's tornado, her husband hanging onto her for dear life as the wind pulled her down the hall.

They survived, but half their house didn't.

So how did Buenting spend the day Monday? With no running water, no power and nowhere to stay, she helped neighbors take photos of their storm damage for insurance claims.

Up and down the war zone that was once Main Street, residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed pitched in to help neighbors equally devastated by the rare November twister.

"You've got to," a tearful Buenting said. "That's what our little town does."

No pictures could do justice to the damage wrought by Sunday's tornado, with wind speeds reaching 140 mph.

Entire blocks of homes were flattened, with nothing left but bricks. Some were shoved off their foundations; others were covered in tree limbs, roofs exposed, garage doors hanging askew. Street signs were gone, stop signs bent. Bikes, boats and mattresses dangled from trees.

But the town's water tower and grain elevator towers, full from the harvest, stood tall.

In all, the storm damaged more than 200 homes in this town of about 975 residents, according to John Dwyer, coordinator of Champaign County's Emergency Management Agency.

"Probably about two-thirds of the town has suffered some kind of damage, from totally destroyed to just missing a few shingles," EMA spokesman Rick Atterberry estimated.

The National Weather Service classified the tornado as an EF3, with peak winds of 140 mph.

"That's pretty serious business," said State Climatologist Jim Angel of the Illinois State Water Survey.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale rates the strength of tornadoes based on estimated wind speeds and the damage caused. The highest is an EF5, with wind speeds over 200 miles per hour. The twister that leveled 400 homes in Washington, Ill., near Peoria, was rated an EF4, according to the weather service.

Gifford remained without power Monday evening, and officials weren't sure exactly when it would be restored.

The tornado took down almost all of the power poles along Main Street. Atterberry said teams will begin stringing new power lines Tuesday to get electricity to the south end of town, which escaped mostly unscathed. Homes on the north side will get power once lines along U.S. 136 are repaired, he said.

Residents initially were forced to use the bathrooms at Country Health Nursing Home on the north side of U.S. 136, which had generators and water and served as the Red Cross shelter.

Later in the day generators were brought in to the lift station and water plant so sewers could get up and running and residents could use their bathrooms — "sparingly," Dwyer said Monday evening.

Some homes could get a "trickle" of water, but a boil order remained in effect, he said. Stacks of bottled water were placed throughout town for residents and volunteers to drink.

"Water is our biggest issue," he said from the mobile command post at the Gifford fire house.

The Casey's at U.S. 136 and Main Street brought in a generator Monday afternoon so residents could have access to gasoline, he said.

U.S. 136 remained closed, and only Gifford residents were to be allowed in town after dark, Atterberry said.

Main Street was fairly clear of debris by early afternoon, but crews planned to continue working on residential streets Tuesday.

Authorities said they would allow in volunteers requested by Gifford families to help with the cleanup on Tuesday, Dwyer said, but "we're not doing a massive call for volunteers yet."

The Red Cross shelter was to open for a second night Tuesday. Only a few residents stayed there Sunday night, but the shelter is set up to handle 50 or more. Officials expect to see more traffic throughout the week as families who stayed with friends or relatives for a night or two see a need for alternative shelter.

"The community is so kind taking in everybody," said Kelly Formoso, manager of the Red Cross' Mid-Illinois Branch office in Champaign. "We're going to stay open until we see there's no more need."

The Red Cross served hot meals at the nursing home and distributed them to residents and volunteers throughout town.

No further injuries were reported Monday. Dwyer said it was clear that residents heeded emergency warnings Sunday, and that prevented fatalities.

"We know from history that wasn't the case in Joplin," he said, referring to the 2011 tornado that killed more than 150 people in southeast Missouri.

Only 3 percent of all tornadoes recorded from 1950 to 2010 fell in the month of November, according to Angel.

"They're pretty rare," he said. "This is the only one I could see where there was an outbreak like this." Sixteen tornadoes were reported across the state Sunday, he said, but some of those could have been multiple reports of the same tornado.

*****

For many, Day 2 was the first step of a long cleanup effort. Residents cleared trees off their homes and vehicles, picked through the rubble for whatever valuables they could find, and tried to assess what to do next.

The sun was bright but winds still swirled as anybody who could walk joined in the cleanup. Crews used bulldozers, forklifts and backhoes to haul away branches and debris. Red Cross workers hugged homeowners in their driveways.

In downtown Gifford, Donna Goldenstein stood by a pile of wood, old gasoline pumps and signs from what was once the family business.

The building, which dates back to the 1800s, had been a horse stable, then an automobile dealership, and later a gas station and an oil distribution company, Busboom Oil Co.

Her father, Robert Busboom, ran the oil company. He just died on Oct. 10.

He had recently removed the above-ground tanks, but the two-story frame structure still stored his fuel trucks. The original doors from the car dealership were also buried in the rubble.

"We have a pickup truck in there that survived, if we can get them out," said Goldenstein, who now lives on a family farm outside Gifford.

A number of antiques were lost Sunday, but Goldenstein pulled an old metal Marathon Oil sign out of the rubble.

Luckily, no one was there when the tornado struck.

"We're very fortunate," she said. "People lost homes. We just lost stuff."

*****

The storm was capricious: near homes that were nearly leveled stood a newer ranch home with nary a leaf on the manicured lawn. Nearby, a woman raked up a few twigs, her home also untouched.

Derin and Shannon Scott said they won't know if their house just west of downtown is salvageable until they meet with an insurance adjuster. It's still standing but lost most of its windows. They spent the day "just trying to go through stuff and collect what we can," Derin Scott said.

Their son kept to his usual routine, going to school at Rantoul Township High School.

"He was in a state of shock," said Shannon Scott. "He didn't want to stay home or talk about it."

The younger kids stayed home as Gifford Grade School remained closed.

Derin Scott was home with his five children, the youngest age 2, huddled in the basement when the storm hit. His wife was across town at his mother's house.

"As soon as my stepson heard the sirens he grabbed the little ones and told his sister to get downstairs," Scott said. As their ears popped, they heard the house shake and glass breaking.

They emerged a few minutes later, helping several neighbors climb out their windows.

One woman, six months pregnant, rode out the storm in her bathtub as the tornado pushed her house 30 feet across the yard, wedging it against a large tree.

Buenting, who lives across the street from the Scotts, was worried about 36 years of tax records from her husband's tax business still in the house.

"My husband does taxes for most of this town," said Buenting, who has a photography business. "Our office was OK, but if it rains, they're gone."

*****

At St. Paul's Lutheran Church on the south side of town, volunteers put the word out Sunday night that they'd be providing free lunches Monday to residents and volunteers. They asked for pots of soup and sandwich fixings. They were deluged with food.

"Social media at its finest," Christina Gann, chief organizer and church member, said cheerfully. "We were abundantly blessed."

Hundreds of people stopped by for a hot meal, served by a dozen or so volunteers. They also carted food out to residents and workers who didn't want to take time out from the cleanup, said volunteer Cathy Gallahue of Rantoul."Some of them had no homes, some of them had no electricity or heat," she said.

The makeshift soup kitchen had enough food for an evening meal, too, and volunteers planned to continue their efforts into Tuesday and possibly Wednesday.

"As long as we have a need, we will be here," Gann said.

*****

The tornado just missed Thomasboro, roaring over U.S. 45 and first touching down about a mile east at the Ehler farm. It then skipped northeast, hitting several other farms before plowing through the center of Gifford. Twisted metal, farm equipment and other debris littered the farm fields between the two towns.

John Ehler, 30, said he and his wife were watching news coverage of the storm when he looked out the window and saw a tornado coming from across the street. Then he saw the top half of his pine street fly by the window. "It was unlike anything I have ever seen before," Ehler said Monday.

He and his wife grabbed their 3-year-old son, who was napping, and ducked into the basement. They huddled there for 4 to 5 minutes until the tornado passed. Next door, Ehler's cousin, Bev Ehler, had just finished cleaning her fish pond when she heard a loud "whoosh" as she walked back inside. Looking out her back window, she saw almost nothing left of her farm. The tornado had destroyed a half-dozen sheds and grain bins and hurled trucks and fuel tanks into the cornfield. A 5x7 piece of shed was lodged in her oak tree and metal from a grain bin wrapped around a fuel tank like aluminum foil. Semitrailers and farm vehicles were flipped upside-down.

In the machine shed, the force of the winds buckled the garage door and moved one of the walls 18 inches. Crews worked to stabilize the building so they could get the rest of the vehicles out and prevent anyone from being hurt by dangling metal siding.

The building was just rebuilt in 2009 following a fire the year before, Bev Ehler said. Her husband died shortly afterward.

"It's been a challenge," she said. "I had a fireman tell me I wasn't meant to have a shed on this location."

More than a dozen relatives, friends and coworkers arrived to gather debris, drain fuel tanks and lend support to the two families.

With storms forecast later in the week, "we don't have any choice right now," Bev Ehler said. "We don't want anything else to happen."

*****

In Gifford, John Albers of Rantoul had an unsurpassed view of the approaching twister. He was at his father's house on a hill on the westernmost edge of Gifford, watching from a basement window.

"It just engulfed that whole treeline" a quarter-mile to a half-mile away, he said. "Once I saw it, it was here in maybe 10 seconds.

"You couldn't see the typical funnel. It was just a black cloud," he said. "Then the window broke out and everything flew into that window and then within two minutes it was gone and done."

"It sounded like an explosion," he said, as though the house had snapped off its foundation. "You'd hear all the walls creak for about 5 seconds and then poof it was quiet and it was gone and then all you heard was the rain."

*****

At Gordyville, just west of Gifford, police turned back drivers headed east into town.

Inside, employees offered free chili and grilled cheese to anyone involved in the relief effort.

The Red Cross was on hand with a sign-up sheet for "spontaneous volunteers" who wanted to help. By 1 p.m., hundreds of people had volunteered.

Danielle Deck of Mahomet, whose husband operates a sewer repair business, came to offer her family's help.

The drove through the country on the way, showing their three kids the farms that fell in the storm's path.

"I wanted them to realize why we get in our cellar," she said.

Tom Kacich contributed to this report.

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Ladydeerhunter wrote on November 19, 2013 at 11:11 am

My granddaughter and her husband and baby live in Gifford and lost their house and car.  Thank God they were not at home. They lost many valuables, some of sentimental value. Their house will be demolished because it is unliveble but they are thankful to be alive.  People have been very good and they are so grateful for the many who have helped them.  They need several items but were able to salavage some  kitchen items.  Soft items such as sofas, beds, etc were lost. Most of their clothing was lost. The baby lost all of his toys which he got mostly for his 1st birthday in Aug. but some of those will be replaced come Christmas. He has a lot of grandparents!   They will eventually rebuild and life will go on. Prayers for all of the tornado victims all over the midwest.