Drone over storm-ravaged Illinois village documents aftermath of historic tornado outbreak

GIFFORD, ILL. - The central Illinois village of Gifford, home to 975 people, used to be a quiet place. But that all changed on Sunday, when an EF-3 tornado with 140 mile per hour winds blew through town.

Gifford was one of the hardest-hit communities, in what was worst tornado outbreak the state has experienced in the month of November.

Now, about 200 homes on the north end of town are either blown out husks, or entirely leveled. Nearly everything could be found in the gnarled trees: puffs of pink insulation, shredded clothing, mattresses, and American flags.

Fortunately there were no deaths in this town, but the storm killed six in Illinois and two in Michigan.

Any structure taller than a person seemed to be wrapped with some kind of metal. Signs, steel roofing, and trash cans were bent at sharp angles from the EF-3 tornado.

Strong winds from the EF-3 tornado crushed and wrapped this trash can around a pole.

Strong winds from the EF-3 tornado crushed and wrapped this trash can around a pole.

When I visited the town with Acton Gorton on Tuesday, clean-up was in full swing. Streets had been cleared, power was being restored, and trucks from all over the area were taking out debris. Pallets of food and water were sitting outside a local church.

Red Cross trucks were surveying the village, stopping occasionally to snap a photo. Meanwhile, I deployed a small drone to get a better assessment of the damage from the sky.

I found some unoccupied parts of the village, and flew the aircraft to about 50 feet above ground level.

The small drone was a four-rotor, remote controlled helicopter called the AR.Drone, which is available on Amazon or at most Brookstone stores. The drone was equipped with a 720p camera, which transmitted video to an iPad on the ground, which also served as a controller. It was modified with a higher-capacity battery, and the camera angle was adjusted to better survey the ground.

It's not the most advanced setup, but it demonstrates the kind of drone journalism that even a low-cost unmanned aircraft system can achieve.

Deploying the drone in Gifford, Ill. Photo by Acton Gorton.

Deploying the drone in Gifford, Ill. Photo by Acton Gorton.

Gorton, who was there surveying the damage on the ground, re-posted my aerial video, and included video he collected while driving through Gifford.

The modified AR.Drone 2.0 at work in Gifford, Ill. Photo by Acton Gorton.

The modified AR.Drone 2.0 at work in Gifford, Ill. Photo by Acton Gorton.

This flight was conducted in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration advisory circular (AC) 91-57, by an insured, card-holding member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and was not performed for compensation or hire.