Ten years after Gifford tornado: ‘There were countless miracles’

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GIFFORD — Ten years after a tornado ravaged parts of the Gifford area like an out-of-control freight train, the belief persists: There was a divine hand that protected human lives.

“There were countless miracles, like a house destroyed and a Bible open (inside) and not a speck of dirt on the page,” said Christina Gann Jepsen, who helped to spearhead cleanup efforts and keep the community informed. “It’s sad we went through it, but glad God protected lives.”

Summer Schluter remembers her family of 18 people huddled in her in-laws’ basement northeast of town, seeing the entire house lifted off the ground, basement ceiling and all. But unlike “The Wizard of Oz,” the people stayed put, with no serious injuries, while the house left the premises.

“It was God” who protected them, Schluter said. “We felt that right away. We knew the outcome could have gone so differently.”

Vicki Warner, who with husband Kenny owns Farmers Ag Service, knows how catastrophic the twister could have been at their business.

“You saw what happened at Teutopolis” in October, Warner said, when five people died from a traffic accident that caused an anhydrous ammonia leak.

She said none of the approximately 60 anhydrous ammonia tanks or chemicals stored in 5,000-gallon tanks on their property were touched despite two buildings being destroyed and one receiving minor damage.

“It was amazing,” Warner said.

Another ‘relaxing’ Sunday

It was Nov. 17, 2013, and residents were settling in for a fall Sunday afternoon about like any other. But the day turned out to be anything but restful.

The tornado was first reported touching down at 12:45 p.m. about 2 miles east of Thomasboro, heading northeast toward Gifford.

Gary Maxwell, youth and missions director at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Gifford, and his family were preparing to celebrate daughter Beka’s eighth birthday when it roared through their property, damaging their house and causing significant suspension damage to the vehicles parked nearby, as it lifted them off the ground and then dropped them.

The theme of the birthday party? “The Wizard of Oz.”

“Our house was still standing. It just blew out all the windows, and the roof had to be replaced,” said Maxwell, who lives a quarter-mile from the church. None of the birthday-party attendees was injured.

Jennifer Olson had gone to church in Gifford that day but was at The Beef House near Covington, Ind., for an event when she heard about the tornado.

A friend texted her: “Our house is gone!”

Her aunt and uncle’s house on the west side of town was destroyed.

“I just remember the only thing that was standing at the top of their house was the bathtub,” Olson said. “And on the back side of it was the closet to their bedroom, and all the hangers were still in the closet.”

Olson was struck that people wanted to help however they could.

“Everybody wanted to help,” she said. “What was so awesome was seeing everybody come together. You felt God’s presence in this community. You truly did. His hand of protection was here.

“For all that to happen and nobody was injured. For the church not to be touched, the school not to be touched and the nursing home not to be touched.”

Olson said the church was packed the following Sunday. She’s never seen it so full.

“It was incredible,” she said. “People who had never been to church. They had to put chairs in the hallways and chairs in the upper. Some of those families lost every single thing that they had.”

Schluter remembers her mother-in-law, Carolyn, getting up from the table to get something as the family had sat down for an early Thanksgiving meal. She looked out the window and saw the tornado.

“It was barreling toward us!” Summer said. “Our phones started going off, and the house started shaking.”

No one needed to be convinced to head to the basement.

“I can remember the whistling, and the house was shaking like crazy,” she said.

Suddenly, there was nothing above them. The tornado had taken the house but left the family.

“It was surreal,” Schluter said. “We were protected that day. The good Lord had protected us.”

Her mother-in-law cut her hand on some glass that was on the basement floor and a brother-in-law was hurt when a door flew in and hit him in the back.

The whole thing was over in a minute.

Afterward, “we were all walking around like zombies looking at each other,” she said.

The twister destroyed the house as well as a corn crib and a free-standing garage.

Schluter remembers her mother-in-law, two days later, telling Schluter’s husband, Michael, that she couldn’t find her purse. Michael walked over to the pile of rubble that had been the house, and there atop it was the purse and the last photo the family had taken.

A leader in a time of need

Gann Jepsen was perhaps the face of Gifford’s comeback efforts. “Gifford Strong” was the town motto.

Their farm, where she lived with her husband, Kevin, and family were not touched by the tornado. But something that happened years before prepared her for the role as “manager of operations” to coordinate recovery efforts.

In 1984, a tornado hit the family farm, damaging the tops of two sheds and distributing debris a mile away. She saw the importance of neighbor helping neighbor as the next day, about 50 farmers and others showed up to help with cleanup.

“Mom was a little frantic trying to feed everybody,” she said. “About 10:30, several carloads of wives showed up with food.”

That experience meant Gann Jepsen knew there would be a multitude of volunteers showing up after the Gifford tornado who need to be fed.

“The job really kind of fell into my lap,” she said.

She posted on Facebook asking if anyone could bring soup and sandwich fixings to the church.

“I lived out in the country and still had Wi-Fi,” she said. “I found myself deeper and deeper entrenched, and it never ended.”

That included coordinating — while still delegating — everything recovery-related at the church, including meals, the food pantry and all the volunteers who came through. She also led most of the community information meetings that proved so vital.

Gifford is a community settled by Germans, and Gann Jepsen said they tend to be an independent lot who don’t like to accept help.

“We had to convince them that when we’re in need to accept the help being brought to us,” she said. “There can be no good givers if there are no good receivers.”

Other “department” managers were Gann Jepsen’s dad, Eldon Hesterberg, who helped with the volunteers, primarily with the building of two homes; her sister, Cindy Lustfeldt, who managed the kitchen; Bill and Nancy Wasson, who helped with volunteers; and Lou Fletcher, who was in charge of the food pantry.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers helped, including a number of college students who pitched in during spring break 2014.

The work went on for more than a year, but around the first anniversary, a tribute day was planned at Gordyville, just west of town.

“We all felt that we just needed to be together to mark what we had survived and come through,” Gann Jepsen said. “We called it a tribute day, giving tribute to the hardiness of the families who worked with us and beside us and walked hand in hand with us.”

By that time about everything was cleaned up, and many structures had been rebuilt.

A few days before the tribute day, tragedy struck. Gann Jepsen’s husband died of a heart attack.

She credits “adrenaline and God” for giving her the strength to make it through the tribute. She also credits people returning to her the love and help she had given.

“God answered those prayers in a mighty, mighty way,” Gann Jepsen said. “It was as if everything I had been doing for the community, they were doing for me and my family.”

Gann Jepsen remarried, and she and husband Christian adopted a girl from China in 2017. She also has four children of her own.

‘The church was like the hub’

“Immediately after the tornado, I checked on our neighbors and ran to the church, and sure enough, a lot of people went there to have some place safe to go, even if their house was gone,” Maxwell remembered. “Then that night, the Red Cross came here and tried to set up an emergency shelter. No one used it. Everyone had some place to go, whether it was with a friend or a family member. Everyone got taken care of that night.”

In the tornado’s aftermath, Maxwell remembers people looking out for each other — “the Christian fellowship, the presence of the Lord, protection and the unity.”

The church remained a central part of recovery efforts.

For several weeks, lunches were served there for people rebuilding their homes or volunteers who flocked to town to help “or for people coming back looking through the debris for their stuff or whether it was to meet with people to get help, like the insurance company or FEMA,” Maxwell said.

“The church was like the hub,” he said. “I’m sure that’s the way it was years and years ago. The church was the center of the community.”

Maxwell said he recently spoke with people who commented about all “the nice new houses in Gifford.” They didn’t know it was due to rebuilding after the tornado.

Maxwell said his family easily remembers the anniversary of the tornado. It’s one day after his daughter’s birthday.

“It’s something we talk about every single year on her birthday, remembering that day,” he said. “After the tornado, the 8-year-old said, ‘I’m not going to get a birthday party, am I?’”

She is now a senior at Rantoul Township High School.

The post Ten years after Gifford tornado: ‘There were countless miracles’ appeared first on Chicago Popular.

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