GIFFORD — It's been almost a month since a tornado barreled through this northeast Champaign County community, essentially leveling about a third of its homes.
Quickly, the rebuilding has begun in this town that a month ago had about 975 residents.
The sound of hammers, nailguns and heavy equipment echoed through the town Friday as crews worked feverishly to repair roofs before a predicted snowstorm, raze heavily damaged homes and to clear the seemingly never-ending piles of brush, debris and other wreckage from the Nov. 17 storm.
An estimated 70 homes were demolished by the tornado and another 40 suffered some kind of damage. But the early winter cold and snow isn't delaying Gifford's recovery.
There is new construction already.
Six building permits have been issued either for homes or for garages that will be used as storage and shops to build homes, said the village's zoning commissioner, Eric Rademacher. And more are expected.
"It's going to be busy here for the next 12 to 16 months," Rademacher said.
Although many homeowners are still working with insurance companies, others are finished.
"I think we're starting to get some of that stuff unleashed and saying that you can go ahead and start," he said. "From the things that I've heard from the folks from FEMA and the United Way and the Red Cross, when they've analyzed what's going on in Gifford, we're like a month ahead of where most communities would be."
Gifford's an unusual community, he said.
"You're not talking about a suburb here. You're talking about a farming community where the people are pretty self-sufficient," he said. "We know people who have the equipment to do the work. They're our friends and so we're saying, 'Let's get this stuff picked up and cleaned out.'"
Streets have been cleared, the electrical system has been rebuilt and plans are underway for the village to get a new water tower to replace the one damaged in the tornado.
"The silver lining from all of this is that we're getting some new infrastructure," said Tony McLain, president of the Gifford State Bank.
"Some people have decided to tear down their homes and move to another town and sell their lot to their neighbor. There's nothing wrong with that," he said. "But for our community that's a water tap that is now dry and the taxes on that building aren't going to go to the schools or the village. There are some real repercussions that we have to consider for this community. The village is doing a good job of working to see that we can get back to the norm."
And the bank, one of fewer than two dozen in the United States that is entirely employee-owned, is central to Gifford's recovery.
"Helpful is not the word for it," said village board member Dustin Ehler. "The bank has bent over backward not just for the municipality but for the people of Gifford. They have gone above and beyond the call, with the disaster relief fund and making sure that the donations get to the right people, and helping the village itself get back on its feet.
"Tony McLain is involved in everything that's going on in the village. He's a very special and unique individual who cares about the community."
McLain and six other Gifford residents are overseeing a relief fund, now at $370,000 and still growing. They've given out $130,000 thus far.
"The outpouring for that fund has been just phenomenal," he said. "Sue Grey from the United Way (of Champaign County) helped us out. I mean, we've never done this before. So she gave us some good direction, and told us not to give it all out at the beginning, that there would be people who are going to run into problems in three months, things they hadn't foreseen.
"So we've been very diligent in addressing each one of these applications to make sure that we absolutely do the right thing."
One of Gifford's shortcomings, he said, "is that this community is not good at receiving. They're good at giving but not at receiving. It's tough for them to take it. People will say, "I've got a good job. I'm blessed.'
"That's true. But this was brought up to me: it makes people feel good to send money to this community so it can take care of itself. We need to accept that and allow them that ability to feel good."
Two donations in particular touched McLain.
"This little girl from a little town west of Bloomington — you can tell it was a little kid because of the writing — she wrote that I want this to help the people of Gifford. And inside was two dollar bills and four quarters. And I thought that's about as much as $3,000. That was just so cool, so neat that people think along those lines," he said. "And about three days after the tornado an individual walked into the bank, stood in the teller line and dropped off a check for $2,000. It was done very quietly. He didn't want everyone to look at him and take a picture of him. He just wanted to help. We have seen so much of that.
"This has been quite an experience. There are just so many good people out there who want to do the right thing. We're blessed. We lost so much in material things, but to think that that thing came through here and yet there was nobody hurt, it's phenomenal. There's a lot of faith in this community today."