15-mile scar begins to heal in tornado aftermath

15-mile scar begins to heal in tornado aftermath

Fifteen miles.

That's the length of the tornado that slashed Champaign County on Sunday. You could almost see it Thursday by all the burn piles full of gigantic tree limbs and brush, dotting the farmland in the northeast quadrant of the county.

From Bev Ehler's farm near the intersection of 2500 North and 1600 East to Jackie McLaren's beautiful 10-acre spread of timber and bottomland along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, there were destroyed homes, uprooted trees, downed power lines and drainage ditches and streams full of siding, insulation, pieces of grain bins and assorted debris.

Fifteen miles of demolished homes, damaged farm equipment, overturned cars and boats, missing personal effects and bad memories. But no death.

"I know precisely where it started. The National Weather Service man told me. You see my rock pile right there? You see where the red pickup is? It came down right there," said Bev Ehler, pointing at a spot about 30 yards from the house she was in, oblivious to the tornado warning.

"That man looked at me and said, 'I can't believe you're alive.'"

She was behind the house, working at her fish pond.

"I tried to go into the house and I couldn't get the door open. That's when it hit. And I heard this whooosh. And it felt like my house just breathed, that it just wanted to breathe in and out. That's all I can explain," Ehler said. "My dog Bella was pacing around. I could tell she was upset. I said, 'Bella, it's going to be fine. It's an old house. We're just having some wind. It's going to be OK. Relax.' Then I looked into the kitchen and I have a big sunroom and breezeway and the whole thing was covered in leaves and I thought, 'What in Sam Hill is going on out here.' My doors were all closed. Then I looked up and I saw that it had raised my roof up and it put it back down."

Ehler lost all kinds of buildings and equipment and fuel tanks and vehicles.

"You move forward. Things broke or whatever. It can all be fixed or replaced or whatever. I'm just so thankful that no one got killed," she said. "I'm not going to sit around and sulk. You go on."

A few miles to the northeast, 22-year-old Evan Suits was watching over the destruction of a 90-year-old corn crib on his family's farm.

He took a torch to it and soon it stood out: a huge, orange rectangle of flame on a dreary, gray November day.

The roof of the corn crib had been sucked off and tossed a half-mile or so to the northeast.

"We didn't use it for years," said Suits. "And now the roof is in the neighbor's house, over on their property."

There was no sentimentality in his voice.

"I'm just glad no one was hurt," he said.

Farther northeast, a spot on the countryside that was the home of Brenda, Jeff and Alex Mifflin. It's been gone since Sunday.

"It was your basic farmhouse, 120 years old," said Brenda Mifflin. "It had been there in the '80s from over by Royal."

She and her husband took shelter in the basement and were unhurt. Their 17-year-old son was at a friend's house.

"If my son had been home — his room was upstairs on the second floor — I couldn't have gotten to him fast enough to tell him to get downstairs with us. The upstairs just collapsed," she said. "Blessings all around. That's what I said from the beginning. God was with us because we're all still here."

Up the road is that rarity of rarities in Champaign County: a hill with a commanding view of the country. It's where Gary Hein has lived since 1955. His home is still standing, but probably not for long. And his farm equipment is a mess.

He was in Charleston when the tornado blew through.

"When we came over that hill right there I had to stop and look," Hein said. "This barn's 50 foot by 50 foot and 50 foot tall. There was another barn that was 40 by 50. They were completely flat. That shed there was a new shed, 60 by 96, with all that equipment in it, tractors there were 2 years old. The cabs exploded on them. The wiring and everything in it just exploded out. The combine is all mangled. The wagons were all upside-down and twisted. The grain auger is twisted like a noodle.

"The National Weather Service was here and they walked around and said that the center of it went right through here (about 100 yards south of house)."

On the other side of Gifford — but still in the path of the twister — is the two-story, Sears, Roebuck catalog home of Mike and Nicole Swinney and their 11-year-old twins.

"It used to be a nice house. It used to be," said Swinney, who works for the postal service and also owns the North Forty bar in Gifford. "I think it just skirted us. I think if it had been 20 feet farther north it would have taken the house."

But it took out his garage, tossed his big pickup truck 100 yards away and flung his boat and camper more than a mile away into the woods, he said.

"I told the kids last night that I'll make you have a good Christmas somehow. It ain't gonna be like our normal Christmas with the tree and stuff but we'll try to have a nice Christmas," Swinney said.

Up in the northeastern corner of Champaign County sits another rarity: an idyllic spot with tall trees along a meandering river. It's been the home of Jackie McLaren, her husband Terry, their daughter and their four dogs for 15 years.

"My husband was watching the Bears game, of course," she said. "He kept looking for funnel clouds. Then he saw like a half-mile wall of clouds coming toward us. He didn't think it was a big deal. I looked out the kitchen window and saw stuff going circular around the house. It was like the Wizard of Oz with the debris going around the house. I yelled at him that I was going in the basement. His concern was to get all our dogs down in the basement. He made it down about two steps and I'm looking up at him and that's when the door behind him imploded. That's when the roof lifted."

The roof is gone, as are some walls. Winter is coming fast.

"We're looking for a rental house now to get us through the winter before deciding whether to rebuild," she said. "I'd like to rebuild here but the important thing for us is that no one was hurt."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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