GIFFORD — Teresa McClain advised her class of 20 fourth-graders at the Gifford Grade School to stay away from doors and windows, "to be very, very, very quiet" and to sit cross-legged, facing the thick, block walls in the basement of the big, sturdy schoolhouse.
Tuesday was the day of the annual statewide tornado drill and it had new significance for the approximately 200 students in Gifford, about 50 of whom belong to families displaced by the Nov. 17 twister that battered this northeastern Champaign County community, leveling 65 to 70 homes.
The students did "a real good job" in the drill, said Rod Grimsley, who is both superintendent and principal of the school.
The town's warning system? Give it an incomplete.
Only two of the three warning sirens in Gifford survived the tornado and neither of them sounded on Tuesday.
"We think it's a problem with the encoder to the sirens," said Dave Fletcher, who is not only the school custodian but the town's emergency management agency director and captain of the volunteer fire department. "I hope we can get it fixed tomorrow, possibly."
Grimsley said the students "saw a lot more importance with the drill today than they have in the past."
"Several of the kids had to go to their tornado areas in their own homes and they were able to survive," he said. "There were not any fatalities here in November when the tornado went through so they understand the importance of it. I could see the looks on some of their faces. They were more serious than in the past. In the past a lot of kids look at it as a chance to get out of class and to break up the morning a little bit."
Peyton Huls, 11, a sixth-grader, said she tried not to think about the tornado during Tuesday's drill.
Her family lost their home in the storm and are living in Rantoul, probably until this summer or fall.
"We were in the basement and we had been down there for a while," she said of the storm. "We were just being cautious. We went down there and sat there for about 20 minutes. And then my dad heard cracking stuff and he just pushed us to a corner. It felt like 10 minutes but it was only like 30 seconds."
Gigi Mulvaney, 9, a third-grader, said that she and some of her friends were "shaking" before Tuesday's drill because it reminded them of the storm.
Her family's home also was lost in the tornado, but they recently moved into a new place in Gifford. She said she was grateful for her family's support, particularly her 12-year-old big sister, Julia.
Grimsley said many of the older children in the K-8 school have been helpful to the younger ones since the tornado.
"Some of them have younger brothers and sisters. I can tell you that a lot of those kids would be very helpful if we needed them in the future," he said.
Asked if life at the school was getting back to normal, Grimsley said, "I don't think there is a back to normal right now. But I think that what we've done has helped tremendously. I know that some of the parents that had some early concerns have responded back to us that what you've been doing has been helping, we really appreciate that."