A year after tornado, 'little, bitty town' is pulling itself up
It wasn't long after a tornado destroyed Fairdale on April 9, 2015, that residents figured out that if they wanted to move back home, the community had to come up with its own solutions.
The tiny, unincorporated town was too small to meet the minimum threshold of $18 million to be eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster aid. Damage totaled about $11 million.
But lack of relief wasn't the only obstacle to recovery.
Would the residents be strangled by red tape?
The six-block town was surrounded by farms in rural DeKalb County. It was built long before modern-day zoning regulations and health-related building codes were written. Could they rebuild even if they wanted to? What would it take?
On April 20, 2015, the DeKalb County Long-Term Recovery Corp. was born to figure that out.
"It was clear that there was not going to be any federal help," said Bill Nicklas, vice president of the nonprofit organization.
Nicklas, who lives in Sycamore, is a former vice president of Northern Illinois University. He had also served as manager of Sycamore and of the city of DeKalb. He figured his local government expertise would be useful.
"We have to do something," he thought. And do it quickly.
Fairdale was just a "little, bitty town," resident Susan Meyer said the day after the tornado struck the community located off Route 72, about 19 miles northwest of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
It was built in the 1880s, then rebuilt after a fire. It used to have a hotel, a post office and a one-room school, until the 1950s.
About 150 people lived there, plus several farmhouses just to the northeast, when the tornado struck. A railroad line runs to the south. There are three long streets and two cross streets.
There are no stores, no churches, and only one business, a woodworking operation.
The lots are 66 feet wide by 132 feet deep, and many of the houses were built close to the lot lines. Each had its own well and septic field and tank, close together. Nowadays, wells and tanks are supposed to be at least 50 feet apart, and wells and fields 75 feet, by county law.
And setting the houses farther back on the lots would require building over those septic fields, which is not allowed.
But cooperation and creative thinking came into play.
"Geography and topography saved us," Nicklas said.
Bill Nicklas of the DeKalb County Long-Term Recovery Corp. looks over a picture taken shortly after the tornado that struck the unincorporated community of Fairdale.
- Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
From east to west, Fairdale slopes down about 15 feet, to a farm field.
"The county became our advocate," Nicklas said, and with the blessing of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the organization bought seven acres of that field last July to serve as a community septic field. Now, the individual septic tanks on each lot are connected by sewer mains, and effluent drains to that field.
And DeKalb County authorities were persuaded to allow variances so that homes could be rebuilt in their original positions.
"We were the pea under the mattress all summer and all fall and all winter," Nicklas said of the group's relationship with county authorities. "We discovered a lot of good will."
"I think everybody could identify; this (the destruction of a small town) is a compelling story. Speed was important. Urgency was the order of the day."
So was help from other people and organizations.
Seed money for expenses such as rent for offices and portable toilets, and to set up the corporation came from the Douglas and Lynn M. Roberts Family Foundation. The DeKalb County Community Foundation kicked in $100,000 to start the septic field study. It also is serving as the pass-through for tax-deductible donations being made to the recovery group.
The organization has also received help from the McCormick Foundation.
An elementary school class donated their $17 in lunch money. Donations made to GoFundMe accounts set up by the Village of Kirkland and the Kirkland Community Fire Department were turned over to the recovery corporation.
The woodworking business allowed the recovery group to set up an office in a trailer on the site. 84 Lumber let the group use a closed store, with two warehouses, in Genoa to store donated supplies and donations for almost a year. The Christian religious group One Family One Purpose of LaHarpe built a house in three weeks.
A couple of wooden stars with positive messages adorn a pole along a street in Fairdale, one year after a tornado struck the unincorporated community. Bill Nicklas of the DeKalb County Long-Term Recovery Corp. says that the stars appeared late last summer.
- Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
The human side
The recovery organization early on took a page from residents of Washington, Illinois, who had suffered a tornado the year before. "You need to have stewards or shepherds for people" as they deal with their shock, anger and panic, Nicklas said.
The organization designated 13 volunteers as "case managers," each serving four to six clients. They helped residents navigate through challenges such as dealing with insurance companies, contractors, finances and the specific requirements of building after a disaster.
Meyer experienced some of those difficulties. She is now on her second contractor for rebuilding her home.
"It's been a bumpy road," she said, adding she contemplated giving up.
She lost seven pet birds to the storm. But she marvels at the two that survived. They weren't cuddly birds before, but the two have bonded to each other, and are behaving better than they did before the storm, including playing tag with her and a new bird in her temporary apartment.
Meyer is an artist, and she missed the space she had in her house for her work. And the large trees the community had. "I miss my gardens. I miss my trees," she said. But she has acquired three paintings and some potted trees she will turn in to a nature-themed triptych in the home. "I'm going to try to create the woodland from the inside out," she said. A garden club has donated plants and money for landscaping to Fairdale, she said.
In 2015, 15 permits were issued for new construction, and 28 for restoration. There are 15 vacant, but buildable, lots.
The new sewer system is one change for residents moving back.
At community meetings, residents dreamed about making Fairdale better.
Natural gas service was one request. Their furnaces and appliances were fueled by liquid propane, and they had been paying as much as $600 a month for it during the winter months.
Plus, natural gas would be safer.
"It was a blessing none of them (LP tanks) exploded in the storm," Nicklas said.
The recovery corporation persuaded Nicor to extend lines, from the east and the west along Route 72, to the town. The extension also benefits some nearby farmers, who can hook up their corn dryers to the utility.
Better internet access also was desired, so a communications company linked Fairdale into NIUNet, a high-speed fiber-optic network that loops through northern Illinois and some Western suburbs.
And a new street-lighting system, using energy-saving LED lights, may be installed.
Work continues to repair many of the homes damaged by a tornado that struck the community of Fairdale in April 2015.
- Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
Hammers are swinging as homes are being rebuilt or rehabilitated. Several residents have been able to move back in.
New playground equipment has been installed at Fairdale Park, which will be the site of a memorial event Saturday.
Residents and first responders will gather for a private breakfast that morning. At 12:30 p.m., there will be a groundbreaking ceremony for a house to be built by Habitat for Humanity, a dedication of a memorial bench and plaque, then speeches by the DeKalb County sheriff, the mayor of Kirkland, the Kirkland fire chief and state legislators. Gov. Bruce Rauner has been invited.
Then residents will have a pig roast, just for themselves.
The day will be the first time they have all been back together. " ... Where it will be like Fairdale again," Nicklas points out.
The town will be better than before, Meyer proclaims.
"That is astounding," Meyer said. "The progress that has been made is absolutely incredible."
Fairdale tornado factsAround 7 p.m. April 9, 2015, Boone, Lee, DeKalb and Ogle counties in northern Illinois were in the path of a supercell tornado.
• It was classified as an EF-4 (out of 5 possible) on the Enhanced Fujita scale.
• An EF-4 tornado means it had winds of up to 200 mph.
• There were 11 tornadoes in Illinois that day, and seven of them were in the north central part of the state. Six combined into a supercell by the time they reached Rochelle and Fairdale.
• Two people were killed, and 22 injured.
• It was the strongest tornado to strike northern Illinois since the Plainfield tornado of 1990.
SOURCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration