GIFFORD — Before the tornado, Carolyn Ross spent much of her time working as a caregiver in Paxton.
"I went to work, came home, walked my dogs, then got up and did the same thing the next day," said the longtime Gifford resident.
Since the tornado, Ross has grown closer to her neighbors and other residents.
"When you go through something like that, it creates a bond," she said, adding townsfolk — from those like her who lost their home to those who just wanted to help — came together in countless ways in the immediate aftermath and during the cleanup and recovery process to rebuild the town and their lives.
"We were already a close-knit community," Village President Derald Ackerman added. "I think we're even closer and stronger now because of that."
The funnel cloud touched down around 12:45 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2013 — an unseasonably warm day five years ago this weekend — near a farmhouse a mile or so east of Thomasboro. As it barreled northwest toward Gifford, it grew in strength and became wrapped in rain, taking down or damaging several homes and outbuildings, vehicles and farm equipment and trees and power poles in its way.
According to the National Weather Service, the EF-3 tornado was half a mile wide when it hit Gifford around 12:55 p.m. and cut a diagonal path through town.
The twister destroyed nearly 30 homes in the village of 1,000 or so people and caused major damage to another 40 and minor damage to 125 more. It also damaged a dozen or so businesses and peeled back part of the roof on Gifford Grade School.
It tracked northeast into Vermilion and Iroquois counties, remaining on the ground for an estimated 29.7 miles total. In Champaign County, six people were hospitalized, but no one suffered life-threatening injuries or died. Damage was estimated around $60 million.
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Ross and her housemate, Greg Pundt, keep a thick scrapbook of news articles and photos, but they don't need to flip through it to recall what happened. Five years later, it's still seared into their memory.
After church, Ross had planned to go to Bloomington with her brother. Then the wind picked up, and the sky turned a strange color.
"Our neighbors (Chad and Leslie Hoover) came over as they often did during bad weather," she recalled, adding her home on the corner of Park and Plumb streets had a basement. "We were standing in the living room when (a local meteorologist) came on TV and said, 'Take cover. It's heading your way.'
"I thought, 'Yeah, right. It's November. I'm (59), and we've never had a tornado in Gifford,'" Ross continued. "All of a sudden, we felt all of the air being sucked out of the house. We ran to the basement. ... On the way down, we could see stuff flying everywhere. There was so much dirt and debris, you couldn't see the person next to you."
When they emerged from the basement, Ross said Leslie Hoover went to look out a window at her house.
"There was this blood-curdling scream because her house was gone," Ross recalled. "I went to the living room. I looked out the window to my neighbors across the street (Dave and Rhonda Bletscher) — it still hadn't dawned on me yet — and thought, 'Why is my mattress in Dave's tree?'
"All of this was gone, all of this was gone, all of this was gone, this one was damaged very badly," Ross said, standing in her yard and pointing to houses up and down Plumb Street. "You couldn't lay your hand down without hitting a sock, a shoe, insulation. Everything was destroyed. People were walking around in shock."
She and Pundt also remember Dave Bletscher, Gifford's volunteer emergency management coordinator and a volunteer firefighter; other firefighters; village officials; and residents — many of whom found their roofs or walls blown off or their homes in a pile of rubble — walking house to house to check on their neighbors.
"It was amazing no one was killed," Ross said.
Pundt was hit by broken glass as he followed the others to his basement, but wasn't hurt. The house wasn't as lucky.
"Our house was still standing, but it was so badly damaged, we had to tear it down," Ross said, tears filling her eyes at the loss. "It was just an old, country house, but we had done so much work on it. It was a unique house."
But "we were lucky," she continued, adding they still had their belongings and pets. "Some people lost everything."
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Today, Gifford's landscape looks much different than it did before the tornado, Ackerman said.
"To be honest, it looks a lot better with all of the new homes and the homes that were repaired," he said.
"We still have a few empty lots," continued Ackerman, who, like other community leaders, worried that residents might move away permanently for financial or other reasons. But he said the vast majority returned, and some new families have moved in.
"It wasn't ever a thought," Gifford Fire Chief Rich McFadden said of moving from the town where he's lived most of his life.
The twister took the roof off his two-story home and twisted it on its foundation. He and his wife lived in his parents' basement for six months and moved into their new home the following July.
"I think that's the way most people felt. They like the community, and they're active in the community, so they're going to stay."
Ross, who grew up on her family farm a mile north of town and moved back 20 years ago, never considered moving away, either. She and Pundt, with their two dogs and five cats, rented a small house in Paxton for 10 months until their new home was ready.
"Most people went bigger, but I went smaller," she said, adding she didn't want a big house to maintain.
The one must-have feature: a small, steel tornado shelter in the corner of the garage that's bolted to the concrete floor. It's large enough for about six people and her pets.
Ackerman said streets, sidewalks and lights have been replaced or fixed.
"We still haven't done our final street repairs yet," he said. "Next year, we're going to oil and chip them and get things back up to specs."
Gone are the mature trees that lined the streets.
"I remember driving down Center Street and being able to see clear up the hill to the west side of town," said village Clerk Diane Baker, a 45-year resident and the longtime office manager at the grade school. "Before, you couldn't see the houses because of the trees. You would drive through and say, 'This was the prettiest tree' in someone's yard. That was hard, not seeing them anymore."
But many of them have been replaced by new red oaks, swamp white oaks, sugar maples and smaller trees that were donated and planted by volunteers.
In the business district, the North Forty tavern is in a new, larger building, and the Gifford State Bank put an addition on its north side where the tavern once stood.
"All of our businesses have rebuilt or made repairs," Ackerman said. "They're all doing better than ever."
There's a new water treatment plant, water tower and a larger village hall, which brought the offices and maintenance building under one roof. And on June 24, 2017, community leaders and residents dedicated the new Emord Memorial Park, north of the community center, at the Gifford Community Celebration.
"I don't even think about that tornado," Ackerman said.
While it will always be etched in their memories, he said most people have put it in the past.
"We want to continue with what we've been doing — looking to the future and continuing to move forward, not dwelling on the past."
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"Everything has been exceptional," Baker added. "A lot of the buildings were rebuilt in a very timely manner. This is the type of town where everybody just pitches in and helps everybody."
"Everyone came together," agreed Ackerman, who said despite challenges along the way, the massive cleanup and recovery happened as quickly as it did thanks to the hard work and perseverance of townspeople; businesses, organizations and churches; and an army of volunteers from near and far who helped in some way.Christina Gann, who managed Gifford's Tornado Relief Operations, said the natural disaster gave residents "an opportunity ... to live out and to show the rest of the world what it means to be part of a small-town community."
She said a resident shared, "The tornado was the worst experience of my life. I never would have gotten through it if it wasn't for my family, also the community, especially at Christmastime.
"Our community was positively impacted by friends and family — and strangers," she said. "Over the next 10 months, we had volunteers from literally across this great country come to help with cleanup and rebuilding of homes."
Gann said it was an opportunity for the self-reliant townsfolk and farmers "to learn how to be good receivers" and "those with a strong faith" a chance "to put it into practice."
"We learned that with God's strength, we could get through more than we ever imagined," Gann said. "We came to understand that there was nothing we did to deserve this tragic storm, nothing we could have done to prevent it. We also knew that our lives would never be the same again, even those directly impacted by the tornado.
"It was almost poetic that this storm hit shortly before Thanksgiving. There were many blessings being counted that holiday, even while walking through the rubble of homes and businesses. Countless stories of miraculous provision were told. There were more near misses with debris than we could ever count. As we walked the streets, we just couldn't imagine how someone could have crawled out of the rubble alive. Yet they did."
When she reflects on the community five years later, Gann thinks of Ecclesiastes 4:9 and 12: Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. ... Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
"To me, our community is a symbol of the three strands," Gann said. "We were not overpowered by the tornado. And when we felt like we simply could not go on, someone was always there to pick us up. We were not quickly broken."