Was Washington, Ill. equipped to handle disaster?

November 18, 2013 (WASHINGTON, Ill.)

According to the police chief in Washington, they learned that there was a tornado headed directly at them and then had 15 minutes to issue a warning. First, the siren, and then they put it out on social media. Most people in town managed to hear the warnings and survive because of it. Many of those people showed up Monday afternoon to see what is left of their home.

"When that alarm goes off, you go to the basement. You can't fly over this devastation and know those people didn't take cover when the siren went off," said Gary Manier, mayor, Washington.

But was the town of Washington equipped to handle this disaster? The ABC7 I-Team has obtained a recent investigation that says while they did have a plan, they did not have the money or resources to support it. On Sunday morning, they didn't have much choice.

"This has gone very smoothly," said Chief Don Volk, Washington, Ill. police.

Don Volk, promoted to chief just three months ago, may be as surprised as anyone. The police force budget and staffing has been slashed at a time when the small town's catastrophe response capabilities were considered dismal.

That was the dire conclusion of this 2010 regional emergency management report obtained tonight by the I-Team. The finding was that Washington, Ill. has "limited technical capability to implement hazard mitigation strategies. . ." resulting in a "significant and growing concern" that the city will be unable to afford adequate emergency preparations.

And it was here at the police station in the city of Washington, population of 15,000, that one officer received word of the warning and pushed a button, activating the siren. Some thought they heard the roar of the tornado before the siren.

"It was just like a train, it was roaring, I couldn't hear any sirens but that might have been just because it was roaring so loud," said Bruce Carey, Washington tornado survivor.

"I was driving up the road and it was right in front of me. I had to quickly turn up a side road and pull into another lot because it was right there. I swear I could have touched it, it was just so close, just two by fours, and homes and everything everywhere," said Carey.

"We got the notice from the National Weather Service, we set off the sirens, we had about a 15 minute head start, that's not enough time to evacuate all these people, they had to have sheltered in place," said Chief Volk.

This is the command center where Washington emergency responders are receiving radios so they can all be on the same frequency. Hundreds now are on the scene here trying to tackle what they are calling "day one." The other number that matters is four, as in EF-4, the second strongest tornado ranking there is.

"We are using every resource we can get, we are requesting resources from IEMA, they have been a wonderful help, they all have been," said Sara Sparkman, Tazewell County Emergency Management.

For many, surviving meant helping themselves. Brevin Hunter, 6, was playing video games when he heard the tornado siren and convinced his mother and brother to head to the basement and hide under a mattress.

"We just covered up with a mattress. And she was holding me tight, I was holding her tight," said Brevin Hunter, 6, Washington tornado survivor.

"I think Breven was a good example of many people in Illinois who helped their neighbors, who helped their families get to safety," said Gov. Pat Quinn.

In the end, it was early warning that a tornado was approaching and the old-fashioned civil defense siren that saved lives.

"Somebody made the right call, and we actually did check those sirens and they still work. If there's anything happening, they will have sirens to warn the public," said Sparkman.

Tazewell County emergency responders that train and drill for events like the tornado are now among dozens of local, state and federal agencies that are here helping.

"We had people left and right coming into town, the local agencies around here just saturated us with bodies to help out," said Chief Volk.

At 15,000 people, Washington is too small to qualify for federal grants known as impoverished town funds. However, Sunday morning when this tornado hit, it didn't matter too much because people came running to help.

Statistically, the one death here was less than usual in this strong of a tornado. According to researchers, since 1950, EF-4's averaged more than four deaths per tornado. And in the past 30 years, it's dropped to three.

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