McHenry County disaster response officials test skills

Emergency experts praise drill

A really bad day for McHenry County unfolded last week before the eyes of emergency responders during a four-day Federal Emergency Management Agency exercise.

A gunman shot four people at Harvard Milk Days, which subsequently was visited by a cloud of toxic anhydrous ammonia from a nearby tanker collision. A storm system damaged a Lake in the Hills dam and spawned two tornadoes, one of which smashed Crystal Lake’s police station and knocked out the SEECOM communications center.

Two hundred people died, many more were injured, and agencies had to work together to pick up the pieces.

Fortunately, like those weekly radio and TV interruptions say, this was only a test. But what a test it was.

More than 80 representatives from countywide agencies attended the exercise March 11-14 at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md. 

The county’s delegation included police, fire, public works, government and other parties involved in disaster response who would have to work together in the event of an emergency. Aside from a meal plan, the federal government paid for the trip.

David Christensen, director of the McHenry County Emergency Management Agency, called the training intense and realistic.

“There were eyes opened that, yeah, this could really happen here, a realization that nothing was out of the realm of what could really happen in McHenry County. Could they all happen at the same time? Well, you hope not,” Christensen said.

The 1965 Palm Sunday tornado killed five and damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes in Crystal Lake. A freak January tornado in 2008 forced the evacuations of more than 100 homes in unincorporated Lawrence because it derailed a train carrying flammable ethylene oxide – fortunately, none was released.

The size of McHenry County’s class was one of the largest that FEMA has ever taken, County Administrator Peter Austin said. 

Austin and Christensen had high praise for the instructors, who had years of on-the-ground experience dealing with disasters worldwide.

“These folks were from around the country – people who had been to the tsunami in Japan, [Hurricanes] Sandy, Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti,” Austin said. “To hear from these folks was very powerful.”

Christensen said the exercise showed that the county’s disaster plan is great when it comes to immediate response – what he calls the “lights and sirens” phase. The groups took away the need to improve how agencies work together to promote disaster recovery, he said.

County emergency management will make a presentation about the four-day exercise April 2 to the McHenry County Board, said Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, who participated.

“I came out of [the exercise] knowing that we will continue to train so we will be ready if something like this comes,” Hill said.


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