On November 17th of last year, an EF-4 tornado ripped through Tazewell County, affecting three of its four largest communities. The tornado remained on the ground for 46 miles and was the strongest ever recorded in Illinois for the month of November.
Within one hour of the disaster, the Tazewell County Emergency Operations Center was up and running. All the years of planning and certifications would now be put to the test.
Under the leadership of Dawn Cook, director of emergency management for Tazewell County, representatives of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, local hospitals, the regional utility provider Ameren, the National Weather Service, regional search-and-rescue teams, and many others gathered to provide a coordinated response to the disaster. It soon became apparent that communication would be an issue since both cell and landline phone service was down. Within hours, two county mobile command posts were established in the affected areas, along with one Illinois Emergency Management unit.
The first priority was to secure the area and bring in search-and-rescue teams, consisting primarily of EMA volunteers from area counties. These teams worked through the night, going house to house looking for anyone who may have been trapped or injured. Despite the enormous destruction, just one fatality occurred on the first day (an elderly woman passed away two weeks later as a result of injuries suffered during the storm). A Regional Emergency Medical Response Team was also set up to provide triage and immediate medical needs to residents. They remained in the area for over a week, providing first aid to the clean-up teams as well.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn came in the following day to survey the damage and commit assets to aid in the clean-up. The County Highway Department, Illinois Department of Transportation and all local municipalities provided dump trucks and end loaders to remove debris. Due to the threat of snow in November, the debris removal operation worked 24 hours a day. County GIS data was a valuable tool in helping to recreate neighborhoods for the search teams. When looking at a pile of rubble, the teams could have difficulty discerning what kind of structure they were viewing (single family, duplex, etc.). The GIS layers provided the information they needed to work.
The Supervisor of Assessments extended the Board of Review so homeowners could see a reduction in their property tax obligations and the Community Development Department (Zoning) is waiving all building permit fees for those structures damaged or destroyed by the tornado.
Lastly, thousands of volunteers responded to help. AmeriCorps sent managers and staff to help coordinate all those who wanted to help in some capacity. The outpouring of volunteers from Tazewell County and around the Midwest was overwhelming.
In the end, more than 1,200 homes were destroyed or damaged, and 113 people were injured. It is truly a miracle that only two people lost their lives in this disaster.
We now begin the long phase of rebuilding. Tazewell County will hold a debriefing in the near-future to see what worked and most importantly, what needs to be improved upon. County government often shines the brightest in times of disaster and difficulty. You can never have too much planning… iBi