Tornadoes in Illinois – Part I: Responding to Disaster

Storm damage in Gifford, IL. Courtesy of Rick Atterberry

As many of you know, Illinois and other states endured violent and deadly tornadoes on Sunday, November 17.  By far the most significant damage in Illinois was in Washington, IL and other Tazewell County communities and Gifford, IL NW of Champaign-Urbana.

I’ve just returned home after working 14 and 15 hour days in Gifford as the PIO for the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency.  I’ll attempt to chronicle some first hand lessons learned in the days ahead.

What is the initial takeaway in the first day of recovery?  We humans are more resilient than we think.  Sure we complain from time to time about people who don’t plan for a disaster, aren’t prepared to be self-sufficient, etc.  And that is often the case.  But when the chips are down, people have a way of putting things in perspective, at least in the early days. 

While taking media members on a walk-in to the most heavily damaged area, where about two dozen homes were completely destroyed, I expected some pushback as the TV folks attempted to interview affected residents…the word “victim” does not apply.  Time and time again, they reflected on the miracle that only six people sustained non-life threatening injuries.  What was important was that they were safe and their friends and families were safe.  And, this sentiment was reflected with uncommon grace and good humor.  Laughter, especially self-deprecating laughter, does heal.

I’m not prone to sentiment, and maybe I’m just tired, but those words and actions were very meaningful.  Made all the more so because, you see, Washington, IL, which was hit by an F4 tornado, is my home town and home to family, all of whom are okay.  Two of the three houses, not so much, but still habitable.

I’ve been reading dozens of Facebook posts and some commonalities between Washington and Gifford strike home. In both communities, sheltered-care facilities were spared by a couple of hundred yards.  In both communities, people are grateful that the schools were not seriously damaged, those schools being a pillar of the two towns.  In both, first responders swooped down to conduct a painstaking door to door search for casualties.  While Washington had one fatality and several dozen injuries, there is agreement, as there is in Gifford, that it could have been much worse.

What does the future hold?  We’ll see.  At first it will be little victories…the return of electricity and gas, the ability to flush the toilet, the first green grass next spring, the checks from the insurers.   And then?  What happens during the long slog of rebuilding?

We’ll see.  In the months ahead I’ll do my best to document the recovery and, to bring us back to a less emotional view, the lessons learned.   One Facebook message tonight included these words from Washington Mayor Gary Manier, a classmate of a sibling.  “Today we can, Together we will.”  And those words were written before the tornado.  A second posting shows that the good spirit is not reserved for those of us of somewhat advanced age.  The Washington High School football team has advanced to the state quarter finals.  Last week they doubled the score on rival University High of Normal.  This week, the same Uni High players are feeding the Washington players while they practice at Illinois State University in Normal since school has been cancelled in Washington as the complex has no power and is very near the worst damage.  New friendships for life after a devastating loss.

Check back Monday for part two of the Tornadoes in Illinois series. 

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