Tornadoes in Illinois – Part II

I earlier wrote of the tornadoes that devastated parts of Illinois on Sunday, November 17.  Hardest hit was my hometown of Washington, IL, about 80 miles from where I now live.  1 person was killed and dozens injured.  Preliminary estimates are that 400-500 homes may have been destroyed or sustained such damage that they will have to be demolished.  Less than 2 hours after that storm, a different tornado struck Gifford, in Champaign County, where I serve as the volunteer public information officer for our emergency management agency.  More about that as a possible role for Extension employees in a later post.  In the weeks ahead, I plan to document the roles that Extension will play around the state during the long recovery.

Some thoughts as the recovery in Gifford moves along.

First, the Incident Command System does work and, although most of us are taught it’s application in a pretty strict fashion, in practice it can be as flexible as need be and easily scaled to the event.  Practice does help and we have had several major exercises this year.  If nothing else, that gets the parties to know one another.  More later.

Second, there is no mobile command post large enough to hold all of the players.  We are fortunate that the local firehouse is intact, new, and has a great conference room/day room.  A mobile communications trailer is invaluable.  Not only can it help manage the event, it can provide cell service, better than they’ve ever had, to a smaller, rural community.  We went from less than one bar of signal strength to 5 when the trailer was fired up and it is the fasted 3G service I’ve ever had.

Third, in these circumstances, press releases need not be flowery or even full paragraphs.  A collection of relevant bullet points a couple of times a day works well and is easier to accomplish on an IPad with the above mentioned 3G service.

Those are some immediate thoughts.  Today was day two of intensive cleanup and utility restoration.  Water, albeit non-potable water, has been restored which is very meaningful from a sanitation standpoint  As of a couple of hours ago, power was restored to nearly all undamaged homes.   Natural gas is more difficult because of the need to cap lines to damaged homes and will take longer.  With low temperatures in the teens this weekend, that will be a challenge.   At times today resembled an army being mobilized, at least what that looks like in the movies.  The dump trucks, endloaders, claws, etc. descended on the town at 8AM.  I’ve never seen a traffic jam of big yellow tractors before.  Access has been limited to all but specifically requested volunteers so far.  Tomorrow the roadblocks come down.  I’ll let you know how that works.

I’ve been working from the pre-dawn morning TV shows through the evening news and leaving the media on their own for the 10:00PM spots.  So far, so good.  Each day, we’ve been able to improve the location of the impromptu Joint Information Center.

This morning, a reporter asked me about my overall impressions.  I told him what struck me deeply, as I walked from one end of town to the other in the dark after a community meeting were the sounds.  It was like walking through a Surround-Sound extravaganza.  As I moved, I would go from the “beep-beep-beep” of heavy equipment, to the noise of a large truck, to the steady drone of the generators on the light towers, then the smaller generators at homes.  Contrast that to absolute silence in the pre-dawn hours.  No birds.  They have not yet returned.

As I prepared for the umpteenth live interview with local media tonight, I looked down and a rabbit, probably born this past spring, jumped out from under a debris pile that was being scooped by a loader.  I pointed it out to the young reporter who had earlier been over in Washington, and she/we almost cried.  A symbol of rebirth.

Written on November 20, 2013
Check back Wednesday for part three of the Tornadoes in Illinois series.