Emergency managers told business, school and government leaders in Bloomington-Normal on Tuesday that collaboration and communication are key when responding to a disaster.
Bloomington city manager Tim Gleason was city manager in Washington, Ill., when a tornado struck on Nov. 17, 2013, leveling much of the Tazewell County town. He took part in a disaster preparedness workshop Tuesday at Illinois Wesleyan University.
“It’s critical for these people to have a level of understanding for what is going to occur, who the faces are, what the roles are when an event such as a tornado or even a small event when something happens,” Gleason said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”
Gleason said city leaders will need develop an incident command group, which requires identifying those best suited to “step up” when disaster strikes. He said it's not in everyone's skill set.
“You have a sense, you know your people already,” Gleason said. “You know there might be some that aren’t going to step up in this critical situation, which is not suggesting that they don’t have tremendous value within the community in doing other functions.”
Gleason said quick debris removal after a storm is crucial to aid the rebuild. He noted the Washington tornado fell a week before Thanksgiving, ahead of a brutal winter that made cleanup difficult.
“Debris removal was critical because when we had the ice and the snow thaw in the spring of 2014, I wanted the community to see a blank canvas," he said. "We just started hitting hard the recovery itself versus having to clean up debris that still remained on the ground four of five months later because of the winter conditions."
The workshop included a FEMA course and a tornado tabletop exercise to help senior leaders prepare for real-life scenarios.
Eric Hodges, emergency manager at Illinois State University, is calling upon these leaders to develop a response plan that's adaptable to any kind of disaster.
“We try very hard to write all-hazards plans, so if we are going to write an evacuation plan, we don’t care what the cause is for executing the evacuation plan,” Hodges said. “It can be any number of reasons we can come up with and those that we are just not creative enough to come up with today.”
Scott Swinford, deputy director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said the training provides a glimpse of the kind of preparation those in his line of work are doing on a daily basis. He said it's important to know where to turn for assistance when the moment strikes.
“The adage is you never want to trade business cards on gameday and we certainly don’t do that," Swinford said. "We’ve got each other’s cards and we’ve had them for a very long time.”
Dawn Cook, the emergency manager in Tazewell County who was among those who responded to the Washington tornado, said communities should make communicating with the public a priority so residents know where they can find the resources they need.
"You have to use all kinds of mediums, (including) social media," Cook said. "Instantly when I was in my (Emergency Operations Center) those pictures from people are just popping up because you've got that phone in your pocket and you are just taking videos and taking pictures."
Gleason also recommends cities review their insurance plans, establish distribution centers, and have updated GIS mapping. He noted some Washington residents couldn't recognize their own neighborhoods after the tornado.
He recommended cities establish a tax-exempt account where they can receive donations before disaster strikes. He said money is the best donation you can get after a disaster; water and food can also be useful. But clothing can become a "disaster within a disaster." He said don't be afraid to refuse it.
Gleason also warned communities should be prepared for volunteers willing to help and some who may not have the best intentions.
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