One year later: The Schalbers

One year later: The Schalbers

Was it chili for lunch that Sunday? Nancy Schalber is sure it was; her husband, Carey, thinks it was not.

She's sure, though, that the 71-degree weather was ideal.

"It was beautiful outside," Nancy says."Beautiful."

Carey was home for a quick lunch. It was noon, and the Bears game was just starting on TV. The score was 10 to nothing in favor of the Ravens at the end of the first quarter, but the Bears would come back — not that the Schalbers would care that day.

Carey had finished his lunch and had to get back to work. He is a Champaign County sheriff's deputy.

He was heading south of Flatville where he heard Gifford mentioned on the scanner.

There was a burglar alarm at Gifford State Bank.

"That was strange," he says. "It was Sunday."

And there was a weather alert for his town. Carey called home to urge the family to take cover in the crawl space.

Nancy, daughter Emily, son Nathan and faithful dog Max were at their home; they'd been getting an early start on Christmas present wrapping.

They heard the rumbling outside.

They headed into the laundry room to get into the crawl space, which was temporarily blocked by 20 or more bottles of detergent.

"Buy one, get two free," Nancy says. "You can't pass up a deal like that."

Nancy said the tornado's passing was something out of science fiction.

Nancy caught a glimpse of motion in a "yellowy, sand-colored light."

"All you could see was things hovering, suspended in the air," she said.

Only Nathan, now 15, had the sense to grab a flashlight. He was the calm one, the kind of guy who doesn't talk any more than necessary.

Emily called Carey while he was heading back.

"Now I'm really freaking out," Carey says.

Frantic calls

Emily, 21, soon to be married, was more nervous. If she hadn't been at home, she would have been with her fiance, and her beloved Chevy Cruze would be safe.

Emily called her fiance, Brenton Isom, to calm herself. Instead, she frightened him.

"The last thing Brenton could hear was me screaming — then my phone shut off," she remembers.

Dust was wafting down through the floor joints.

In the crawl space, Nancy was "thinking that we could die here," she says — right when the tornado passed out of the town.

Dark skies

En route, Carey didn't see a tornado. He saw "a dark mass."

He was heading north into the disaster, into wreckage and rubble, houses destroyed.

The F3 tornado ravaged 24 miles over 25 minutes from 12:45 p.m. near Thomasboro to 1:10 p.m. near East Lynn, according to a National Weather Service timeline.

Carey returned to Gifford to find power lines down. He blocked off that road. Then he walked toward his home and family.

Nancy said the first thing she heard after the winds passed over was a neighbor and friend, calling her name and opening the laundry room door.

Carey had told them to stay put."I thought, if she can get in, we can get out," Nancy says.

When Nancy left the crawl space and went out of the house, she started crying.

"Shingles, metal, housing material was still flapping in the wind, all over. It was eerie," she says.

Walls were down. Glass was broken. The winds had driven a stick or rod through the chimney.

They found someone's 24-can beer cooler in their living room.

Emily carried Max the dog in her arms; there was glass everywhere, as well as the greater fear of downed power lines that were still live.

First help

Nancy called her sister, who walked over to their home from Gordyville, which is between Rantoul and Gifford. Emily's fiance came over; she wept over her Chevy Cruze.

Carey found his family as they returned from a neighbor's house.

Carey checked on another neighbor.

Then "work called and said I was done for the day," he says, "I got out of my uniform. I went from being a rescuer to being one of the people they helped out."

Carey said an upside of working that day was that if he'd been home, his squad car might have been destroyed.

They stayed with Nancy's sister; the old house was without any power. The electricity connection had been ripped off the back of the garage.

The gas was shut off by a neighbor.

Everyone worked

Cleanup started that first day, "little mind-numbing activities," Nancy say.

A local church began providing meals for the stunned residents. Red Cross was there no later than Monday, Nancy says.

"Christina Gann was an angel," she says, "the go-to person."

"I didn't want to ask for help. Somebody else needed it more than we did," Nancy says.

Everybody seemed to want to help.

Members of the Eastern Illinois Parrot Head Club — the Schalbers love Jimmy Buffett and the Beach Boys — helped them move out, as did co-workers. Larry Lister of the Boat Drunks was one of the helpers.

"They showed up with two box trucks, cash, hugs ... in four hours, 45 people moved us all out," Nancy said. "They found our Margaritaville flag."

Tina Cornwell and her husband lived close to the Schalbers. Their house wasn't destroyed, though one wall was blown out, so it was impossible to live there for long.

"We helped each other out," Tina says. "We were just there for them, and they were there for us, taking turns working on each others's problems."

Temporary shelter

The Schalbers stayed a week with Nancy's sister in Rantoul.

Another crowd, mostly the same people, showed up to help them move into a temporary home.

"A lot of people helped move Nancy and Carey into the house in Rantoul," co-worker Tammy Jensen said.

"We had several ladies from work who were there to help them that weekend. They had about 30 or 40 people throughout the days following the storm. It was amazing to see the outpouring of people who just wanted to help out with such a difficult time."

Meanwhile, insurance adjuster Jason Palmer had come to Gifford three days after the tornado.

Some friends had been underinsured, and Nancy and Carey offered their windows to help with a rebuild.

The Schalbers' replacement house, on the same footprint, would be completely new.

Nancy had been keeping receipts for food and batteries, but Palmer gave them a pre-loaded debit card and told them "not to sweat the small stuff."

The old house was demolished beginning Jan. 15 —"an awful day," Nancy says. "I remember feeling completely lost, and we were now truly homeless.

Tina Cornwell was able to watch the progress of the new house and report to her friends.

"I let them know when the first wall was up," she says. "Carey and I would sit there on his lunch break and watch them build."

The day contractors put up that first wall for the replacement home was March 5.

"That was a glorious day," Nancy says, "the day we felt like we owned something again, and in some ways the healing started."

After-effects

The contractors worked quickly. But Emily had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from the chaotic moments in the crawl space.

Though she was used to helping others as a volunteer firefighter, she wasn't used to needing help herself.

"To this day I'm absolutely terrified of storms; I start to shake and hyperventilate, even if it gets windy," she says.

The family found a temporary home that lasted until July 3 when they started the move back.

"The Fourth of July was stressful," Nancy says. "We were home, but we were not home."

The Schalbers are still getting used to the new version of their home.

In October, Carey said, "I haven't mowed in a year, I miss it."

But the new house is 2,500 square feet, larger than the 2,200 square foot old house.

There's a new living space above the garage and a new shrine to the Beach Boys, the Turtles and the Association.

"We just feel lucky," Carey says.

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