Players pull together to help their downstate town recover from '1,000-year' flood

Between 9 and 10 inches of rain fell on Gibson City on August 12 during what weather experts called “a 1,000-year event,” cutting outside access to the community and forcing scores of residents to evacuate. (Photo courtesy of WAND-TV).

By Randy Sharer
Special to

GIBSON CITY – When it came to a team building exercise, the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School volleyball team got all it could handle on August 12 when between 9.5 and 10 inches of rain fell on Ford County within five hours.

After many Gibson City homeowners suffered flood damage, the Falcons pulled together to lend a hand.

“My teammates and I all set aside our plans for the next few days to just give back to the community,” said junior outside hitter Korah Palumbo. “We helped clean out basements, crawl spaces, apartments, et cetera, for people who needed assistance.”

Besides helping the community of 3,297 (where no injuries were reported), first-year coach Crystal Richard believes her Falcons bolstered their team chemistry.

“This will do nothing but bring us a little bit closer together and give us all one more thing in common,” she said.

“If we can use volleyball to kind of take a mental break from some of those stressors and have fun and bring something to the community to get excited about, that’s really what we’re looking for and I hope we can accomplish.”

Players found they got a lot from giving.

“It felt great to give back to the community,” Palumbo said. “Everyone was thankful that all the athletes volunteered their time to help.

“One older man told me, ‘You guys are doing a great thing, and someday the favor will be returned when you get to be my age.’”

Adversity the players may encounter during a match won’t seem so daunting after dealing with the flood.

“I felt closer with my teammates and community because the tragedy we faced was awful, although it really gave us all a sense of unity,” Palumbo said.

Unlike a tornado that destroys some homes and spares others, the Gibson City flood impacted many.

“We were all in the same situation together at the same time,” said Richard, still fighting to control her emotions two weeks after the storm. “This was felt by everybody. If it wasn’t your home, it was your friend’s home. It was your neighbor’s home.”

The Falcons were practicing in their home gym as the storm’s intensity grew.

“I remember everyone was in the gym and you could hear the rain and the thunder and how loud and just how intimidating the storm was,” said junior defensive specialist Madison McCreary. “I feel as though we all had a small sense of panic.”

Players drove home after practice through flooded streets.

“I think we were all worried if we would get home safely, which meant a lot of communicating to make sure everyone was safe,” McCreary said. “I think this helped our team dynamic; really showed how much we all care for each other.”

One insidious aspect of the flood – which officials labeled a 1,000-year event – was that it didn’t occur in a floodplain, and thus damage was not covered by insurance.

“It was destruction and devastation,” Richard said. “We all lived through that together and we have that in common now. It’s not something that will easily go away. It’s going to be something that people are dealing with for a very long time.

“I think there are people out there who haven’t asked for help, but probably have really big needs.”

McCreary’s sister was with their grandmother in an apartment during the storm and both had to be rescued by boat. Water rose to knee level in the apartment.

“Since then … my grandmother has been living with us until she can find a stable home,” McCreary said. “Thankfully, the house I live in only has one basement window so a minimal amount of water was let in and was fairly simple to clean up.”

McCreary spent a week helping transport her grandmother’s belongings.

“Personally, I loved helping my grandmother,” McCreary said. “I cannot even imagine the emotional stress on her to have to move everything out of her home, especially because she had only been living in this new house for a month before the flood.”

Back in the gym, the Falcons, coming off a 9-4 spring season, are off to a 3-3 start under Richard, who coached at Rantoul the past 10 years. The young Falcons, who have two seniors, graduated most of their hitters, including Jessica Freehill, now playing at Texas Woman’s University.

“We’re having to make up for that in other areas between passing and setting,” Richard said. “I think we should have a good run this season. I’m really hoping for .500 or better. I think we’re going to have to fight for every game, but we are capable with the team that we have.”

Palumbo has some advice for volleyball fans everywhere.

“Just don’t count us out,” she said. “We fight hard and we work hard, and we can get through whatever is thrown at us.”

The 2021 Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Falcons (Photo courtesy of Vivid Studios, Gibson City)