Gifford residents told about resources to help them stay
GIFFORD — Judy Singh drove her car for about five weeks after the storm until it finally overheated and clunked out.
It turned out the tornado drove a two-by-four through her radiator and into her engine. It shouldn't have been running at all.
The problems residents in this small northern Champaign County community are experiencing are still manifesting themselves nearly six weeks after the Nov. 17 tornado that destroyed about 70 homes.
Residents now face financial hardship, and for some, it will drive them out. Others are resolved to stay, and organizers during a Thursday night town meeting in Gifford set their focus on how to keep everyone in town who wants to remain.
Singh is one of those who plans to leave, at least for a while. She'll likely stay in the area, but she said her son quit his job because he did not want to drive back into Gifford.
"I've got an 18-year-old that's not handling it well," she said.
Several dozen gathered Thursday at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Gifford heard from representatives of the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and the village of Gifford, who assured them more help is on the way as they continue to work out storm-related issues.
Some residents asked questions about Habitat for Humanity's requirements, surveying and engineering costs, storm-water drainage and zoning issues. One woman asked where she can recycle all the plastic water bottles relief workers have handed out.
Officials on Thursday night collected information from residents about what their needs are in an effort to match them with the right social services. Christina Gann, operations manager at the Tornado Relief Center at the church, said there's no telling yet what those services might look like, but help is sitting in wait for the opportunity.
"I'm telling you, we've got a huge list of people who are calling and asking, 'What can we do?'" Gann said.
Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Sheila Dodd said her agency has been approved for grant money to help residents repair or rebuild their homes. She called it essentially "free money to help you fix your home."
Kelly Formoso, the branch manager of the American Red Cross' Champaign office, said her agency may be able to help with miscellaneous issues, like transportation and moving and storage expenses. She implored residents to call.
"If you're finding something you need help with and don't know where to go, come to us," she said.
Buddy Carpenter said he will be staying in Gifford, but he's worried about what happens if others don't. It will affect the school system, he said.
"That's a big issue for me," he said.
Justin Fullenkamp is a resident and developer in Gifford. He knows of four people who have already left, and he's seen others with "For Sale" signs.
"Two of them called me personally, and they apologized," he said. "They felt like they were giving up on Gifford."
He said he completely understands and blames no one. It will, however, have a ripple effect: The cheap, empty lots in the heart of town will offer new competition for his development-ready land on the edge of town. He expects his business to suffer.
Singh has told a few friends of her decision to leave.
"Some were sad," she said. "Some understood."
Gann said it's still not clear what will play out over the next few months in Gifford, but things will be very different next year. There will be a new normal in Gifford, she said.
Carpenter thinks it's going to be hard to shake the small, tight-knit community.
"It's a very rich community," Carpenter said. "The roots run deep."
If you'd like to make a donation to help victims of the Nov. 17 tornado — be it money, labor, supplies or food — call the Gifford Tornado Hotline at 217-568-7411.