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Tornado Alley

My son answered a request for a truck to pick up and deliver some clothes for the relief effort in Washington, IL. Having spent several years helping the Red Cross do just this very thing, I warned him that it might be tricky.  But I am getting ahead of the story.

So, there was this lady in Hammond, Indiana, apparently unemployed and on disability with lots of time on her hands. She decided to start a legitimate charity for various causes and had already done quite a bit of work helping individual families around this area.  Hammond is not known for its charitable organizations…in fact, the place is downright bleak, so I was very skeptical. When the tornadoes hit Illinois, she rallied her 4000 Facebook Friends to donate what turned out to be a garage full of stuff in just two days! The problem was she had no way of getting the collection to Washington, IL.  She had been talking to the minister at the local Lutheran Church in Washington, who had posted their recovery needs: clothing, food, water.  This was also posted on their Facebook page! That seemed like a reasonable enough connection to me, so I shelved my skepticism and told my son I would accompany him to Hammond and then to Washington.

Before we left, I shot a quick note off to my ham radio buddies in Peoria and told them what we were doing.  They were already working at the relief shelter at the very church to which we were headed, so that had me feeling more comfortable – at least we would have someone on the inside to help.

When we got to the lady’s garage, it was indeed stuffed with bags of clothing, largely not inventoried or organized.  It seemed like lots of junk – but the charity lady had expectations of sorting all of the stuff at the church when they arrived. We loaded the truck up because her crew of helpers never did show up and off we went.  Before leaving town, however, we decided to stop by Wal-Mart to purchase some bottled water, something that all relief efforts almost never have enough in supply.

Driving was pleasant enough. It was a beautiful Fall day, perfect blue skies and crisp temperatures as we headed southwest. All of the cornfields had already been harvested, so the landscape was rather bleak, but the blue sky brightened the day.  Our first sense of anything odd wasn’t until we started getting close to the tornado’s path, about 20 miles from Washington.  We passed a large collection of power company workers, heading south.  Then we noticed the debris fields…and it was impressive.  The high voltage power lines and steel poles where ripped from their supports and tossed around like little toys.  Repair crews were working on the lines.  As we got closer to the town, the mess was even more apparent…parts of buildings strewn everywhere, metal wrapped around trees, large trees just sheared apart, and thousands of smaller shredded items strewn everywhere.  It was reported that someone found a cancelled check in Bolingbrook that was a from someone’s home in Washington IL…transported by this storm!  As we made the final approach to the church destination, we could see the steeple on the hill in front of us.  There wasn’t much out there but barren corn fields…so the church really stood out.  Oh, and there was an occasional flattened farm house along the way.  It seemed odd that from our vantage point, everything looked more or less normal, but as we got closer, we realized the church and its massive buildings were untouched…but just to the south of it, hundreds of homes were completely flattened.  That was the most powerful image of all…whatever was in the way of the storm, was destroyed. The local Ford car dealer across from the housing subdivision was completely untouched.  It all seemed so random and very decisive.  It was all or nothing! 

We were directed by our ham radio buddies to approach the church from the east side and to drop our load.  We had arrived early, but the church was already a hive of activity. It was the shelter, the relief operation and the focal point for everything, or so it seemed.  Volunteers stood outside the church, eager to unload our truck.  I ran in to see the ham folks and was a little dismayed to learn that the powers to be suddenly didn’t want our truck unloaded yet. (Apparently the people running the relief operation were in Peoria…the minister was being replaced by a relief professional).  They were adjusting strategies. In fact the church was already overloaded with food and clothing, two days after the event. I reported back to my son, only to find that the truck had already been emptied!  We had to re-pack all of our stuff and much of the other stuff that had since arrived.  We were told to report to another facility.   So, just before we left, I called the lady in charge of the next location and she said, “No.  Please do not drop the clothes off here….we just got two semi-loads of clothing and we have no room!”  Two semi-loads.  Really?  I could see my son was getting a little frustrated with this now.  So, here we were with a load of clothes and no place to drop them.  I called back to our ham friends on the radio and asked where should we go now? He suggested another facility…so we headed off and found an official in a car waiting for us!  But then he asked, “Where are the other trucks?” We looked at him quizzically and learned that he was expecting two semi-trucks with clothes on pallets and could not accept our bags of clothes in this facility!  Obviously, the semis went to the wrong place.  The fog of war was in full force.

I called back to net control on the radio and asked them what to do now?  Net control suggested the Goodwill Store we passed down the road…so we back-tracked and unloaded.  At first they were grateful, but as we continued to unload more and more, they were visibly concerned. This was too much stuff for even them.  They accepted the load, but said that if the churches don’t claim it all in two weeks, they would have to let it go.

We were grateful to get our truck emptied and felt good about what we had done…but many, many lessons were learned.  For one, I violated the first rule of relief response…don’t self deploy.  But hey! I was not travelling under the guise of any served agency…just a concerned citizen working for the church’s relief effort at the time.  Secondly, I don’t think we fully understand the power of social media to solve problems.  The difficulty becomes how to control the response.  People are not satisfied with an appeal to send money, especially when many of those agencies don’t seem to spend the money appropriately. The issue is magnified when you may not have the money yourself to give!  But still, you want to help?! People want to see where their gifts go.  I don’t blame them.  People want to do something to help. So, two days into the disaster relief, the bigger agencies were just beginning to establish a response plan.  We heard on the way back that they had collected all of the clothing they needed (and I learned from another friend that those semis loaded with clothes were meant for the Philippine Island typhoon relief but never got there because of problems securing a plane.)

Yes, there are great organizations out there that do this work…but there is a moment in time when chaos reigns and everyone/no one is in charge.  That is a tough time for the people and the immediate community affected by the disaster.  In time, the Feds stepped in and declared it a disaster. This releases all the resources of FEMA and the relief effort resets.

Because of the strange random nature of the tornado destruction, many services were still working…cell phones, electrical power were functioning for the most part.  Still, ham radio had a small presence, largely to connect the shelter at the church with the main operations in Peoria.  This was the result of the close ties that had been developed between the local hams and the Red Cross.  Both groups were ready to do their part. Still, what I learned is that there are huge numbers of new groups who have come along to provide aid as well…not just the traditional Salvation Army, Red Cross and church groups.  Now there were other ad hoc groups as well.  Coordinating the work of all these folks is becoming a rather interesting challenge for whatever agency runs the relief effort.

Still, we felt good about what we had done.  We did something.  I enjoyed seeing my ham friends in action but as we drove back to Chicago, I think it really hit both of us that the scale and depth of the problem goes way beyond providing food or clothing.  A thousand people have to rebuild their lives and that process is going to take years.  Not sure what we can do to help that process.  What to do when the TV trucks leave. I also resolved to finish building my go kit and keep my batteries charged.  My radio died as we were leaving town. Lesson learned.