As school resumes, officials vow to help Gifford recovery

GIFFORD — Officials are just beginning to grasp the enormity of the recovery their village faces.

The little village hall has been condemned and is no longer available for board meetings, the water plant is operating but a boil order probably will remain in effect for months, and the town's landmark water tower may have to be demolished.

Add to that the loss of a number of village-owned vehicles, including a new squad car — the only one — and a dump truck with a snow plow, just as winter is about to hit.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that the Gifford Grade School reopened Monday and attendance was at 98 percent, said Superintendent Rod Grimsley.

"This morning we had 96 percent of our kids show up," Grimsley said Monday afternoon. "And then I had a family of five come in a little bit late because they were coming from Urbana (about 25 miles away). And then our attendance rate at noon was 98 percent.

"I would say that our attendance rate today is as good, if not better, than everyone else in our area. We have good attendance rates anyway, but today we're above what our normal would be."

About 30 parents brought their children to school by car Monday.

"I thought that was pretty impressive because we had kids scattered everywhere," Grimsley said. "If they still had a vehicle left, the parents said they would bring them to school and pick them up. We did have a school-bus route to Rantoul today to pick up kids who were displaced over there."

He said Monday was "a great day."

"We had six counselors on site today, working with the different grade levels," he said. "The kids are doing well, the counselors are doing a nice job."

There's one more day of school today before a five-day Thanksgiving break.

"We'll get them back into a little bit of a routine, but not a lot," he said. "We've got to get the social part rebuilt, and then we can start working on the academic. That's what's most important now, getting them back to where they're socially on an even keel, and start working from there."

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet dropped off a bucket of donations received from customers at the Mahomet IGA. Inside was $1,316.17, according to employees at the Gifford State Bank.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials were in Gifford on Monday, promising to do what they could to help the village government get back on its feet.

"It's especially important for these smaller communities that they have some help absorbing the costs of some of this recovery," said U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who toured the northern Champaign County community for the first time Monday.

His huge 33-county district also includes Brookport and New Minden, also slammed in the Nov. 17 tornado outbreak, and where there were fatalities: two in New Minden in Washington County and three in Brookport and New Liberty in Massac and Pope counties.

"It would be best if I had my boots on and my work gloves and I was helping, but the district is so big. It's just a balance of being seen and letting people know but not getting in their way, too," Shimkus said before touring Gifford. "Sometimes we cause more delay than we help individually."

He said he hoped federal agencies would be able to help the village, with loans or grants, from possibly the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The fact that they know we're asking might help them to look at it closer," Shimkus said. "Of course, a presidential disaster declaration helps give it a little more oomph."

State Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, pledged help with obtaining state grants and other relief.

"Maybe we can cobble together two or three things to help here," he said.

Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday asked President Barack Obama to declare 15 Illinois counties, including Champaign, Vermilion, Washington, Massac and Pope, major disaster areas.

If the request is approved, Quinn's office said, people in the approved counties would be eligible to apply for grants and low-interest Small Business Administration loans. Affected businesses also could do so.

Next week, local government officials will be asked to meet with state and federal representatives to document expenses related to the tornadoes, including repair and replacement of public facilities, debris removal and emergency protective measures taken.

"It could take up to a month. That's the concern of local communities, the cash on hand. How can they make sure they're covering their costs?" Shimkus said. "We've had major ice storms years ago down in the deep south (of Illinois). It took months to get recovery. We had to appeal it because we didn't think they scored it out right. We finally got some assistance.

"That's why this local volunteerism and people helping people is so important because sometimes we take a long time. Our response is not as quick. I think local communities understand that and they're just hoping that there's something in return. It doesn't cover their costs. It offsets their costs."

In Gifford's case, the city has insurance coverage on its vehicles, its water plant and water tower and its village hall, said Mayor Derald Ackerman.

"I don't know if it will cover it all, but we do have insurance," Ackerman said.

The village hall building already has been condemned and village board meetings for now will be held at the nearby Gifford bank.

The water plant repairs "are all lined up," said Ackerman.

"That's going to be redone just like it was. We're talking to the people who designed it and put it in the last time. They still have all the plans for it," the mayor said. "It was first class. We've got to rebuild that but first we have to get a building over it to keep it from freezing."

A yellow-and-white-striped tent, with portable heaters inside, is all that's keeping the water plant protected from subfreezing temperatures.

The water tower, which suffered structural damage in the tornado, is more problematic.

"I don't know if that water tower is going to survive or not. We'll know more after we get some stretch rods made and then we'll fill it a third of the way to see what happens," Ackerman said. "It will take a month just to get those rods in. Right now, we've got to leave the water tower empty. We're just working directly off the wells now and regulating pressure. That's the only way we can keep the water to the homes. We'll have a boil order for a long time, until we can get back to the water tower."

And the village either lost or had heavily damaged at least four vehicles or pieces of heavy equipment: a squad car, tractor and loader, dump truck with snowplow and a separate snowplow, Ackerman said.

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