Fairdale five years later: residents share how town has rebuilt after devastating tornado in 2015

Residents, first responders, survivors, reflect on EF4 tornado as town rebuilds

FAIRDALE – Clem Schultz said his wife, Geraldine Schultz, is still with him every day, even though she lost her life in a tornado which devastated the unincorporated town of Fairdale in north DeKalb County five years ago.

"I don't mind thinking about the tornado," Schultz, 89, said Wednesday from his five-acre farmette in Genoa, where he moved Aug. 18, 2015, just months after his life was changed forever. "I lost Geri in that tornado, but she's still here with me. I built this little house, and she is here with me every day."

Clem was injured upstairs, as he'd gone to gather a couple camp lanterns assuming the power would go out. The chimney fell on top of him. Geri was downstairs in the kitchen when the house collapsed.

According to the National Weather Service, the EF-4 tornado on April 9, 2015 had maximum winds of 200 mph. The tornado began near Franklin Grove and traveled through the northwest side of Rochelle, across I-39, through Fairdale and ended south of Belvidere. It's the strongest tornado on record for both Ogle and DeKalb counties.

The tornado injured 22 people and cost the lives of two Fairdale residents: Geraldine Schultz, 67, and Jacklyn K. Klosa, 69. In the town with a population size of 150, 17 houses were leveled off of their foundations and almost all of the buildings in Fairdale sustained damage.

Susan Meyer, 72, had just finished up work on her laptop creating 3-D models and was headed downstairs to watch an episode of the crime-drama "Bones," and said she figured it was just another storm. "Been there, done that," she said.

Much like the devastation across the road at the Schultz home, the tempest tore through the town in minutes.

"All of a sudden, the noise started, and it was a dead, even, very loud electrical hum," Meyer recalled. "I just sat down on the stairs with my arms over my head and thought 'Well, the house might be coming down'."

Of her many exotic pet parrots, only two survived.

"The entire north wall of the house was gone," she said. "I went to the edge of the room and there at the drop-off outside was a scene out of heaven. The clouds were very low, and it was this beautiful, apricot golden light that bounced off the low clouds."

Recovery Efforts

Kirkland Community Fire District Chief Chad Connell saw the tornado in the distance as it approached Fairdale, and was the first responder on the scene.

He describes what he saw in one word: “destruction.”

“Most homes were leveled to the ground,” Connell said. “It was hard to get your bearings because all landmarks and trees were gone. Wood, house materials, belongings, furniture, everything was scattered all over in big piles. We worked for weeks afterward trying to clean up.”

DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott said his officers were in Fairdale for at least 30 days after the tornado hit.

“Sure, you see tornado damage on TV, but it’s different when you walk through the sheer and utter destruction of it,” Scott said. “Besides the physical destruction, there was the pain and agony of the people there. The shock of it all, the all-consuming terror and overwhelming sense of “Where do we go from here?”, that will never leave me.”

In addition to the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office setting up a mobile command in Fairdale, the Kirkland Fire Station became a hub for supplies and donations. A  free “general store” was created, where people could “shop” for items they needed, including cleaning supplies, tools, hardware and cases of water.

“We had so many donations in our station that we couldn’t fit our firetrucks back into the building,” Connell said. “People were parking a mile and a half from town and walking, bringing donations and wanting to help. We were feeding about 1,000 people a day for weeks.”

Dennis Miller, the DeKalb County coroner and coordinator for the county’s Emergency Services and Disaster Agency, said that he was amazed at the number of people and organizations that came to help, including volunteers from the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse.

“What I remember most is how everyone supported the residents of Fairdale after the disaster,” Miller said. “We came together as a community, everyone was treated as a person, not a number. Everyone pulled together to help as best as they could for the people that lived there.”

After the Storm

Dave and Shari Novotny, who also lost their home during the tornado, moved to Delavan, Wisconsin last summer.

"Personally, me and my family have kind of moved on," Dave Novotny, 55, said. "We rebuilt and had a nice new home there but this was kind of the long term plan anyway. Life is good for us right now. The tornado, although it was terrible, it was also quite amazing to see the number of people who came and helped out."

Due to extraordinary cooperative recovery efforts organized by the DeKalb County Long Term Recovery Corporation, Fairdale has weathered the last five years and come out stronger.

Meyer was outside tending to her garden Wednesday in front of her new, ranch-style farmhouse, rebuilt in the same spot her former home stood for 175 years prior.

She's been able to pick up her art career again, with clay pottery and 3-D figurines.

She said those who have rebuilt actually have better, stronger homes, modern and up-to-date on codes to help fortify should mother nature wreak havoc again.

"We've got better electrical service, and we have this communal septic system which makes our houses worthwhile, otherwise the town would've definitely died," Meyer said. "And we have reduced utility bills due to more efficient systems and gas."

The effort -- organized in part by Bill Nicklas, who at the time was serving as a private consultant and now works as DeKalb's City Manager -- said it was a joint one with key players such as Doug Roberts (who's family founded DeKalb Ag), and surrounding agencies.

Together, the group raised thousands of dollars to rebuild land, fix roads, improve sewers and connect natural gas lines from Kirkland to the township.

"But that's the physical stuff," Nicklas said. "What we also tried to do was help people regain a sense of confidence after being so devastated."

Meyer said though many have moved away, she thinks the tornado's brought everyone closer.

"We know each other better," she said. "And although we're drifting back to being hermits, we're very good at that."

Schultz said he's "taken a new attitude in life," and enjoys the company of his dog, Benji, who he rescued to offer companionship to Missy, his white German Shepard who survived the tornado. He gave his Fairdale land to his grandson, who plans to rebuild in the spot.

Before the tornado destroyed his home and Geri's life, Schultz captured video of it, which has been shared with meteorologists across the nation, he said, as a first-hand look at a twister of that magnitude.

"They were able to study the vortexes from inside the tornado," he said. "And because of that, I know I am saving lives. And don't do what I did. If the weather bureau tells you to go to the basement, you go to the basement."

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