For Gifford merchants, it's business unusual

For Gifford merchants, it's business unusual

GIFFORD — Lorin Schluter, in his denim overalls, took a break from frying chicken to step out the back door of his restaurant.

There he checked on the generator he had hooked up to a power take-off connected to a 120-horsepower John Deere tractor.

It's been running since 6 p.m. Sunday.

"I had $20,000 worth of food in my cooler," said the owner of Bibb's Country Restaurant who also farms just outside of town.

He wasn't going to let it spoil. And he wasn't going to let his neighbors, friends, relatives and volunteers go hungry.

At 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, despite the boil order, power outages and other challenges, Terry Grant and Maci Owens were carrying out plates of the daily specials: taters and gravy, grilled cheese and chili.

"We have a pot of water boiling all the time," said Grant, who worked 13 hours at the restaurant Tuesday baking pies, preparing salads and serving customers. Due to the boil order, she and Owens have been boiling water before brewing coffee, before washing dishes.

Business has hardly been usual these days for those running the handful of shops and businesses in Gifford.

Double blow

For the first couple days following Sunday's tornado, it was all about "what do you do? what do you do?"

"You're just in shock. Yesterday was the first day I cried. There's been no time to sit and process what's happened," said Eric Rademacher, whose father, Norman, and two uncles, Arnold and Ernie, established Rademacher's Lumberyard and Home Center in the mid-1960s.

The lumber yard sits in the middle of downtown Gifford and right in the path of the storm. The tornado that barreled through town Sunday tore off the roof of its main building, destroyed outbuildings and damaged two other ones. Throughout the store, ceiling tiles dangle and bits of insulation are stuck to everything. The office is completely exposed to the sky, which on Wednesday was turning dark.

"Right now we can't sell anything out of this building," Rademacher said.

He hauled the office computers and boxes of files to his home, which was not damaged in the storm, in Potomac. He and his staff and friends and family members were pulling inventory — nail guns, rivets, pipes, mailboxes — and putting it in plastic tubs. A semitrailer would be arriving that afternoon. The plan is to store the inventory in the trailer while they fixed one of the large sheds in the back. The items could then remain there while the main building is repaired.

Insurance will cover the business income loss and inventory loss.

"But the hard thing is when people change their buying habits. If I'm closed six months, when I get rebuilt, will they start buying from me again?" he asked.

Rademacher's, like other home centers, took a hit in this last recession. The recovery has been slow going. To make up for the loss in income from the lumber yard and home store, Rademacher signed up to be a Pioneer seed dealer. The storage bin for the seeds, out behind the store, toppled over in the storm. This is the busy time for seed dealers, as farmers place orders for next spring planting.

"Things are bad, but can you imagine if you had lost your home and your business?" he said.

Piece by piece

Just behind Rademacher's, a crew of employees from Premier Co-op and a grain system contractor were atop a concrete elevator that contains about 300,000 bushels of soybeans. Stored in an adjacent bin: about 200,000 bushels of corn.

There's been a grain elevator in this farming community as long as Adam Mussman can remember.

"This town was built around the grain elevator," he said.

Several massive steel parts from the elevator's conveyor system and grain leg, which essentially moves corn and soybeans, had blown onto one of the bins. The roof on another one had collapsed.

"Our main concern is public safety," said Shane Drayer, location manager for Premier.

The grain, worth millions of dollars (though not much if it's wet and moldy), is important, he said, but the priority for Wednesday was securing the equipment.

With the help of cranes, they were working to take down the grain leg and other parts, piece by piece.

The giant steel bin is probably lost, but the concrete bins might be salvageable, "though it's probably too early to tell," Drayer said.

Engineers would be assessing the buildings' stability soon, he said.

Meanwhile, over at the bank

"We need a new flag."

Check.

In Tony McLain's office off Main Street, the banker has taped to the wall and propped up on easels about half a dozen, poster-sized sheets of paper, each one tracking a to-do list. Written on one easel: "We need a new flag."

Sunday's tornado shredded the American flag that had hung outside the bank.

"When I saw that, I said, we have got to have a new flag up there. That was one of the first things we did Monday: a new flag went up on the flagpole," said Tony McLain, president of The Gifford State Bank. McLain and his staff of about 25 employees (three of his employees lost their homes) have been open since Monday, generator running, with fresh coffee, juice and clementines for those coming in. A good chunk of the town banks there.

The command center for emergency personnel is down the street, but the bank has become an unofficial community center. Nicor Gas was allowed to organize a staging area there. Various notices about cleanup are taped to the front door. In his office, McLain has compiled, among many other things, a list of uninsured residents. He and his staff are gathering names of agencies to whom these residents could turn for help and counseling. A relief fund, managed by the bank, representatives from the churches, school, village government and nursing home, has been established.

"This is a fabulous community to be part of. ... There is a great community spirit," he said.

"Someone asked me the other day, 'Do you think your community will rebuild?' I said, I think you're looking at that wrong. A community isn't a bunch of houses. It's not a bunch of places you go. A community is people. ... They will stay here. This community will survive," McLain said.

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