'96 tornado looms in Ogden's memory

'96 tornado looms in Ogden's memory

OGDEN — Trustee Duane Fitch did not lose his house during the Ogden tornado.

In fact, his home suffered very little damage.

His parents were not so lucky.

"The day they finished taking down my parents' house remains one of the saddest days in my life," Fitch said.

On April 19, 1996, 33 tornadoes occurred in Illinois.

One of those, an F-3 that was 1,500 yards wide with 170-mph winds, destroyed the place Fitch called home.

"I can remember most everything about that evening," Fitch said. "From the first window breaking, to the first wall coming down letting the wind in, me covering my mom, her saying the Hail Mary a couple times and it was over, not being able to hear right once the wind quit and realizing my ears were packed full of dirt (and) my scalp full of small glass splinters.

"I remember vividly walking outside after and it was a beautiful evening. Unfortunately, all you could smell was natural gas."

Just like what transpired last month in Gifford, the victims of the tornado received an outpouring of support and donations from their friends, families and neighbors.

The aftermath was not without challenges, however.

Fitch said the hardest part was figuring out where to begin.

"The help with cleanup was absolutely critical," he said. "Simply to look at the devastation constantly was extremely depressing and difficult to take. Once the cleanup was done, which was done so much quicker thanks to thousands of volunteers, the process of looking forward became much more realistic."

Fitch said he knows Gifford, like Ogden, will recover from the devastation.

"I am confident Gifford will come back stronger than ever," he said. "There will be thousands of issues that will come up, but all will be addressed and resolved quickly. The biggest challenge they will have is dealing with the elements of a late fall storm in the rebuilding process."

Ogden Trustee Sue Esposito remembers the Ogden tornado very well.

Esposito said the 1996 tornado pushed her to become more invested in her community.

"I wasn't on the (village) board before the tornado," she said. "I did run for the board after participating in the directional meetings afterward. So the tornado motivated me to finally participate in my community."

Esposito said the most challenging aspects of the recovery were getting electricity and cleaning the house inside and out.

"Getting the house livable," she said. "That took about six weeks. I had a baby and that was hard."

Trustee Sonja Vickers rode out the storm in the Ogden United Methodist Church basement with her husband and granddaughter.

It was the second tornado Vickers lived through. Ogden was also hit by one in 1976.

"In '76 when we had a tornado, there was a strange feeling in the air," she said. "My mom and dad's roof was taken off."

Vickers said it is hard to look at the town now and remember what used to be where.

"It is just mind-boggling to try to remember what was here or there," she said. "The Christian Church — that was the end of it. It was damaged so badly they didn't want to build back. Nazarene was badly damaged as well, so they got a new church."

Vickers said she was working at Carle at the time, and even though her house didn't sustain a lot of damage, she still had to deal with her insurance company. She said she would tell the residents of Gifford to be careful about whom they hire to make repairs to their homes.

"You can really get took at a time like that," she said.

Vickers said the tornadoes have taught her that you can never be truly prepared for one.

"You never know when they are going to hit," she said. "You can be prepared for it, but you can't be. You can plan what to do if it happens. Have meeting spots, get in touch, but as to really say 'I have a plan,' no. When it really happens, it knocks the wind out of your sails."

Casey Woller was 9 years old when the 1996 tornado hit.

"I remember pretty much everything," she said. "I can still recount what I even had for dinner that night."

Woller said her family went across the alley from their house to her neighbor's house, which had a basement.

"That's where we took shelter when the tornado actually hit," she said.

Even at a young age, Woller said, she realized it would take a while for Ogden to look like Ogden again.

"It still doesn't look the same though," she said. "The silos are gone and there's empty spots where trailers used to be. The trees are finally starting to grow back."

Woller said her immediate concerns following the tornado were making sure her father was safe (he was working at the Pink House that day) and going to school.

"The gym was damaged so we had to be bused to St. Joe High School to finish out the school year," she said.

Woller also still remembers how eager she was to get power back and resume her "normal" life. She is sure residents of Gifford feel the same way.

"One of the biggest challenges is going to be patience," she said. "But to this day, I still don't have a 'normal' response to storms. At the first sign of anything more than a thunderstorm, I freak out."

Ogden Mayor Jack Reidner remembers lowering himself into his home's crawl space as the tornado hit. His wife and daughter were already there.

After he came out and saw how bad the destruction was, Reidner said, his immediate concern was making sure other residents were OK.

"Buildings can be replaced, but lives cannot," he said.

Reidner said he knows Gifford can rebuild but it will take time.

"Gifford is a small town much like Ogden," he said. "Its residents are resilient, caring and hard-working; therefore they will be able to accomplish the task of rebuilding by working together and with other volunteers and agencies. They must assess the damage, then group together and devise a plan to move forward to recovery."

Melissa Hart lived in Ogden when the tornado hit. Now she lives in Colorado, but she hasn't forgotten that day.

"I remember right before it hit the house that it got very black out and I could hear that train sound that everyone says you hear right before it hits," she said. "I was standing at the window and when I heard that noise I ran to the bathroom and huddled with my kids. When it was over the only room in the house that didn't get damaged was the bathroom we were in."

Hart said she found the most challenging part of the recovery to be getting everything to a point where they could start to rebuild.

"There are a lot of emotions when you watch pieces of your small town where you have always lived being torn down because the tornado didn't get the whole thing but most of it," she said.

Hart said she found the best help came from residents already in Ogden.

"One of the best things of living in a small town is the closeness and caring that you have for your neighbors. If it had not been for my neighbors and my family, we would not have been able to rebuild our house," she said. "It was very, very old, over 100 years, and we didn't get a lot of money from it for insurance, so we had to build the house ourselves. The community all came together and helped each other get our lives back on track."

Hart believes Gifford will pull together and rebuild much like Ogden did.

"They will all pull together and help one another and look out for each other and that will bring the town back to where it needs to be, one building and house at a time," she said. "There will be challenges of getting everything cleaned up and some of the repairs done before winter sets in too much."

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