Tornadoes in Illinois – Part IV: From Response to Recovery

Well, we stood down the public information operation in Gifford on day 6 of the response.  As this new week began, the situation is best called short-term recovery.   A Multi-Agency Resource Center, called a MARC, has been established in the local Lutheran Church which was already serving hot meals, accepting material donations and hosting the community meetings.  That part of Champaign County is predominately of German Lutheran heritage.  Thank goodness the church was not damaged.

The K-8 school in town opened yesterday with an assembly.  Mental health professionals will be on hand for a while.  The superintendent/principal (you know it’s a small town when the same person is both) says that they had 98% attendance even though some were driven from hotels 25 miles away.  He’s been a terrific resource during all of this.  The school had minor damage, but lost its bus barn and a number of busses parked inside.   There is still a boil order so hand washing stations have been brought in and bottled water is served.  The menu for lunch is dictated by not having water.   The boil order could continue for months as the water treatment plant was destroyed.

The community remains in good spirits.  They say church was quite full on Sunday.   Fund raising is well underway with various funds being established.  The main one is at the local bank which established a 501c-3 and has already appointed a board to monitor things.  Close to $50,000 is in the account at last report.

It was very hard to pull away as we stood down last Friday.   The media still calls on occasion, but we’re referring the calls to village trustees.  We distributed a list of contact numbers before we left.  I’ve been explaining that our function was in response and they are well into recovery.  We needed to fuel and clean our gear to be ready for the next event.  Very lucky there were not more flat tires.  Lessons like the need for quick tire replacements for emergency vehicles learned in other similar disasters were applied in Gifford.  A fire truck with a flat tire is a fairly useless piece of $500,000 equipment.

While my volunteer work as PIO was established 15 years ago, at least one other Extension office in the state has just been asked to perform that function.  It’s not my call, but our educators and county leaders do have media experience and contacts, have multiple mailing and e-mail lists and generally are pretty good at using social media.  I think distributing public releases that are created by other authorities is a fairly comfortable role.   On the other hand, we have to be cautious of taking on too many duties.  I suggested to the county leader that he consider the other roles they are or will be playing and talk it over with the regional director.  The other caution would be if the tone of the releases moves from fact-based to opinion pieces.

Other roles for Extension are evolving in other parts of the state.  I’ll write about those as we move forward.

After we shut down in Gifford on Friday, I visited Washington on Saturday.  As I mentioned previously, Washington is my home town.  Dad has lived on the same street (yes, it is Main Street) for most of his 83 years.  His home is fine as it is in the center of town and the tornado struck the newer west side.  About 500 homes were destroyed and over a thousand damaged.  The exact numbers will be known soon.

The tornado was a strong F4, a half mile wide, with peak winds of 190mph according to the National Weather Service.  F4 tornadoes are very, very rare in Illinois.  We drove down the state highway that bisects the damage field.  Dad had warned me that it was disorienting in spots.  Just couldn’t quite place where we were.  After a quick trip to Peoria, we came back via the by-pass on the north side of town.  Had a much better and, frankly, more troubling view of the immensity of the debris field and the extent of the destruction.  Also saw just how close the tornado came to the nursing home and one of the larger churches where services were underway at the time.  It seems odd to say it with one fatality and about a hundred people injured, but this could have been much worse.  It is safe to say that everyone in town knows multiple families who lost their homes.

So, we’ll be watching the recovery in several counties and will share how Extension is involved and how it might be included in the long term recovery.

Written on November 26.

2 Replies to “Tornadoes in Illinois – Part IV: From Response to Recovery”

  1. Wow! Thank you Rick for your service to the people of these two communities! I just now discovered this blog and impressed with role you played. A true professional!
    Warm regards, rosie

    1. Thanks Rosie. It is what we trained for, hoping we’d never have to act on the training. But it worked.

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