Gifford recovery surpassing expectations of some
GIFFORD — You can tell that a tornado battered Gifford six months ago today, but some of the evidence is getting buried under new construction.
On Friday, there were crews at homes on almost every street of the northeast Champaign County community where a devilish twister cut a swath on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, destroying or damaging about 65 residences.
Gifford is not only on the way back, said Gifford State Bank President Tony McLain; it could become bigger.
"The entrepreneurial spirit in this community is phenomenal," McLain said. "We've got people who are not only rebuilding what they have but they're even making it better. They want this community to be better."
Alan Duden of Duden & Silver Inc., a heating and air-conditioning contractor, is almost ready to move into a new, larger building on Gifford's Main Street, replacing a structure leveled by the tornado.
"I think we could have already been in here earlier if it wasn't for the hard winter. We've been working here every day, even through the winter. We just wanted to get back into town," Duden said. "I'm kind of amazed how much construction is going on. I'm surprised it's moved along this quick.
"Most people are saying (Gifford will) be back in a couple of years, but the way things are going, I think it'll be quicker than that."
A block away, the Rademacher Building Center, also heavily damaged in the twister, is rebuilding. Two blocks away, the North Forty bar and restaurant is looking at moving across the street into a new, larger building. The bank will expand into the North Forty's current location. Lenny's Ice Cream Gallery is talking expansion, as is Robin's Truck Sales and Body Shop.
"Many of the businesses in town have made the commitment to the community, that we don't want to just see it get back to where it was. We want to see it take that next step and be better than it was before," McLain said.
Gifford is even examining how to bring new business and residents to the town that had a pre-tornado population of about 900.
"We're going to begin approaching people in the area on how can we entice you into Gifford," he said, possibly including a small food store or clinic.
For now, though, the sounds of power saws, nail guns and heavy equipment punctures the spring sounds of chirping birds and steady winds in Gifford.
Justin Fullenkamp, who is operations manager at Rademacher's and doubles as the village's assistant zoning administrator, said 15 to 20 homes are under construction now and more will follow later this year.
"You've just got to watch the traffic. It's going to get wild this summer," Fullenkamp said. "There's going to be a lot that were really not in too big of a hurry because of the bad winter but now they're ready to go."
Derek Wolken of Urbana was working Friday morning on a traditional, "stick-built" home for his mother-in-law, Debbie Ackerman. It is one of four new homes going up on the north side of Plumb Street, one of the blocks that bore the heaviest damage six months ago.
"I thought it would take longer for this to happen because there are only so many contractors around the area, but a lot of people are coming from further outside the community than I would have thought," said Wolken, who works for his father's business, Wendell Wolken Construction of rural Urbana.
Down the street, Lyle Martin of JM Quality Construction, based in Millersburg, Ind., was putting siding on one of two modular homes that had been set on foundations earlier this week. Fullenkamp said most of the homes now being built are from Riley Homes, based in Urbana.
"Driving in here I saw a lot of homes that were being built and a lot of stuff is going on. It looks like they're doing a great job coming back as a town," said Martin, who lives in Goshen, Ind.
Andrew Helmuth of Willard Helmuth Construction in rural Arthur was working Friday with a crew on the Gifford community center, a town landmark that barely survived the November storm. At one time, its north wall was so badly bowed out that it appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
"The repairs have been on and off here," Helmuth said. "You know how you usually get a little break in the winter so that you can do some work? This winter there was no break and we couldn't get this work done. But we're almost there now."
Once Alan Duden gets his shop rebuilt and moved into, he'll go to work on a new house in Gifford.
"We're still living in the one damaged by the storm but we're going to build a new one about a block away," he said, gesturing toward the highest point in Gifford, a rise on the east side of town.
"That way, we can really see the tornado when it comes the next time," he joked.