Torn, dust-covered American flags hang among wreckage left behind from an EF-3 tornado that ripped through the small town of Gifford, Ill., on Sunday. The flags serve as a reminder to a community of 950 people that they are “Gifford strong” and will rebuild from the destruction that the tornado left behind.
“My American flag was ripped to shreds, but it was one of the first things we hung up (after the tornado),” said Janis Statter, an Auxiliary member of Penfield-Gifford Unit 1153. “And I’m going to save it.”
Statter is one of nine Legion Family members in the town of Gifford that American Legion Past National Commander Marty Conatser has helped receive financial assistance from the Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF).
“This is veterans helping veterans and their families,” Conatser said. “We knocked on doors of (Legionnaires) whose homes weren’t even impacted, and they thanked us for checking in on them. It’s the Legion Family stepping up to make sure you’re alright; just because your house is still there doesn’t mean you weren’t impacted by the disaster.”
The American Legion Department of Illinois has a disaster relief committee with 10 members. Two members from the committee represent one of the state’s five divisions, and they are the first Legion responders when a disaster strikes. They respond by visiting the Legion post in the area that was devastated. There, they look at a map of the community and identify all post members whose homes were in the path of the destruction. They then personally visit each home to check on the Legionnaires and their families and assist with applying for NEF grants.
Conatser emphasized that when visiting disaster areas by car, it’s important to have The American Legion emblem on the vehicle because then “people know you’re there to help,” he said. An Iraq veteran and Legionnaire received NEF assistance because he saw Conatser driving a Department of Illinois car through the debris-filled roads of Gifford.
Dave Cornwell and his family took shelter in the basement of their home, listening to debris slam into the house and shatter windows. His home survived the storm but damage still occurred. Thankfully, Cornwell didn’t have to wait long for support — several local veterans and a few of his Post 287 members in Rantoul, Ill., were at his house two days after the storm to nail fallen trim back up, board the broken windows and place a tarp over the damaged roof. They too brought Cornwell three generators and an RV for him and his family to stay in until they had power again.
“We (a few of the veterans) weren’t friends before but when something like this happens, we all become a group of brothers,” Cornwell said. “When it comes to veterans in need, they (fellow veterans) are right there. They were my first responders.
“And without (the Legion’s NEF) relief efforts and helping me out with funds, I don’t know if I could have survived this.”
Community support was also felt by Korean War veteran Lowell Watson, a member of Penfield-Gifford Post 1153, whose upright home is surrounded by his neighbor’s debris.
“You just can’t imagine how many people have been here to help clean up and give support,” Watson said. “I’ve always supported the NEF grant, but I never thought I would need its support.”
Two men, who traveled 40 miles to Gifford, asked Watson how they could help him. They assisted him by purchasing a chainsaw and cutting down several trees that had fallen around his home.
“They wouldn’t let me pay for the chainsaw. That’s the kind of support we are seeing,” Watson said.
The debris in Watson’s yard was from the home of Post 1153 member John Christians, a home that was now destroyed after Christians’ lived in it for nearly 40 years. Christians’ sister and local volunteers sifted through the home’s rubble to see what could be salvaged, finding photos in broken frames and clothes with the price tags still attached.
“All these people running around helping is what I used to do (for Gifford Township),” Christians said. “Now, I’m wearing different shoes, and it’s tough. So I’ve been on both sides of the fence. You don’t want to be on this side; it’s not very easy.”
Washington, Ill., was also impacted by an EF-4 tornado that left 500 homes damaged and affected 14 Legion families. Conatser is currently assisting Legion Family members in the area with NEF grants.
“When you walk up to a member who is standing next to their destroyed home, and you ask them for five minutes of their time, it’s not easy because it’s an emotional time,” Conatser said. “But when you tell them that the Legion is there to help them get housing, food and pay for their immediate out-of-pocket expenses, they are very appreciative.”
About 100 miles east of Gifford, National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger, Department of Indiana Commander Ed Trice and a dozen other American Legion Family members this week toured damaged homes and businesses in Lebanon, Ind., one of the three hardest hit areas in the state.
Sunday’s outbreak of tornadoes and dangerous winds serve as a poignant reminder to Dellinger about his fundraising mission for NEF. “This is another reminder that these types of disasters could happen anywhere, any time. So we have to be prepared.”
Evidence of the strong winds that tore through the area can be found on either side of the Lebanon exit of Interstate 65. There, a stretch of homes are left with missing roofs, siding and windows after bearing the brunt of the storm. Uprooted trees and debris litter the landscape. Construction crews work to repair a damaged Starbucks.
American Legion Post 113 was in the path of the storm, but the tornado dissipated over an adjacent field, sparing the building.
“This is why the National Emergency Fund is so essential for our organization,” Dellinger said, flanked by damaged homes. “It’s not whether we will have another natural disaster. As I’ve been saying, it’s when and where. Unfortunately for Indiana, Illinois and about nine other states, high winds and tornadoes came upon and devastated communities across our county. That is why I urge everyone to take the opportunity, when you have a fundraiser, to please help us. Because we have to be there for our veterans and their families.”
Includes reporting by Henry Howard.