McHenry County agencies ready to act if tornado strikes

One factor worked for downstate Washington residents as a tornado ripped through their town in November, and one factor has worked against them in the months since, said David Christensen, director of McHenry County’s Emergency Management Agency.

Working in residents’ favor was the fact most heeded the warnings of tornado sirens, radios and weather forecasters, and sought shelter – a factor that kept the death toll to a minimum, Christensen said.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to deny aid to the town has stressed recovery efforts and stretched local resources.

“We would have thought, given the number of touchdowns, it would have warranted federal assistance across the board,” Christensen said. “It didn’t.”

While Washington residents continue to travel a long road to recovery, emergency agencies in and surrounding McHenry County are preparing for peak tornado months. The federal government’s hands-off approach to the Washington disaster gives local agencies all the more reason to prepare themselves, and their local communities, for the worst.

“From a government side of things, we have to be prepared to deal with it on our own,” Christensen said.

The McHenry County EMA focuses on preparing people in the county to best deal with a tornado.

The agency has launched McHenryAware.com to act as an informational hub for the county during disasters. Christensen also encourages residents to secure hazard-alert radios or download applications on their phones so they are always aware when severe weather is threatening.

“We have a severe siren shortage in this county,” he said. “They’re so expensive and their coverage is so limited that it’s better if people have their own notification system.”

The American Red Cross put out the Tornado Warning & Alert App this year. The app issues tornado warning sirens even when closed.

Christensen also recommends that families keep a “go kit” of water, some food and a small first aid kit in the house.

“It doesn’t take too much to get that together, but it takes a lot to get it together if your house has been damaged,” he said.

In the event of a disaster, the McHenry County Department of Health also would provide support to the efforts of the county’s EMA. Keri Zaleski, emergency response coordinator, said the department could set up a clinic to administer medication such as tetanus shots, if needed because of debris.

The department also maintains a 280-member corps of medical volunteers.

“Basically, our role is to support the overall effort and to provide any guidance that is needed in our areas,” Zaleski said.

Red Cross spokeswoman Patricia Kemp said her agency continues to work with people in Washington during what she called an “extremely long-term” process. If needed, the agency would provide the same help to McHenry County in the immediate and long-term aftermath.

“We can open shelters at a moments notice,” she said. “We have our volunteers on standby, ready to go. We have a warehouse ready to go.”

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