URBANA, Ill. – Floodwaters continue to rise across much of Illinois, with 34 counties currently under a disaster proclamationdesignated by Governor J.B. Pritzker. Significant rain and snowfall in April combined with saturated soils have led to widespread flooding, including areas that don’t typically deal with flooding of this magnitude.
With the Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers at flood stage at multiple points along each river, and the Wabash, Fox, LaMoine, Kaskaskia, Des Plaines, and Big Muddy rivers under active monitoring, many Illinois residents, business owners, and communities are preparing to deal with the aftermath of historic floodwater levels. While many resources exist to support community and economic recovery, it’s often challenging for those impacted to know where to begin.
“Information gathering is a critical skill set during and after a crisis,” says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, associate dean and director of University of Illinois Extension. “We know that these skills can help or hinder how quickly individuals and families can recover from disasters, which has a direct impact on how quickly communities recover. We believe that one of the great strengths of the Illinois Extension system is our ability to gather, vet, sort, and share relevant resources during a crisis.”
There are four stages of the disaster cycle: (1) preparedness, (2) response, (3) recovery, and (4) mitigation. Over the next several weeks, most Illinois residents impacted by the current flooding will enter the recovery phase, where they start to ask questions about returning to their homes, businesses, and community spaces. Whether the impacted area is rural or urban, it is important to understand that the danger doesn’t completely diminish simply because the floodwaters have receded.
The cascading effects of natural disasters have far-reaching impacts. Beyond being forced out of their homes and communities, residents also contend with a myriad of other logistical challenges. From food access to SNAP-Ed benefits, and from water quality to sanitation issues for people and animals, impacted communities are ground zero for tough questions.
According to Carrie McKillip, community and economic development educator for Illinois Extension, in the aftermath of a crisis, agencies play a dual role of providing information and services to those directly impacted by the event, while also simultaneously gathering data to mitigate future disasters.
“In many of our more rural counties, it’s not uncommon for Extension to be the only agency with an active, ongoing presence outside of a crisis response,” McKillip says. “Our network can and should be leveraged to provide more efficient access and communication to those individuals and families who are directly impacted. Whether we’re talking about disseminating Extension resources or those from other aid organizations, our network plays a crucial role.”
Extension resources exist to support almost all phases of the disaster cycle, but McKillip says that Extension leadership is interested in delving more deeply into supporting recovery and mitigation efforts. Currently, Illinois is taking part in a multi-state pilot project to create voluntary associations of community groups who stand ready to assist when disaster is imminent. The goal of Community Organizations Active in Disaster, or COADs, is twofold: (1) to alleviate pressure on first responders, and (2) to mobilize agencies and groups that can help from off-site during a crisis.
According to McKillip, it’s not uncommon for municipal leaders to be caught unprepared to manage a local response to a natural disaster because it’s often not articulated as part of the responsibilities of their role. Through the work of COADs, elected officials and municipal leaders benefit from the stability of an entrenched, hyperlocal network of professionals who are trained to understand the depth and breadth of disaster mitigation and recovery.
Illinois Extension is also rolling out other innovative programs to help prepare families and communities for disaster response. In 2017, Illinois began training teenagers about how to respond in a crisis. Known as My PI (Preparedness Initiative) Illinois, youth can become certified through a training program developed by FEMA, American Red Cross, and the U.S. Department of Education that explores critical topics like disaster preparedness, fire safety, disaster medical operations, light search and rescue, disaster psychology, and terrorism. The program is currently only available in select Illinois communities, but is expected to expand over the coming year.
For agencies and professionals who are working with residents and community leaders during the height of the crisis, Illinois Extension offers a few insights.
- People and families displaced by the current flood should contact local emergency management personnel. These groups are best positioned to help during the disaster and in its immediate aftermath.
- Make a plan for cleaning up homes and businesses once flooding recedes. Floodwaters will have dispersed a wide range of unsanitary and toxic materials and residents are strongly encouraged to consult a professional before beginning cleanup efforts in order to minimize any potential health or safety impacts.
- Check with local donation centers to support daily living right now. While individual insurance policies are likely to provide good long-term recovery resources, immediate needs can often be met through local donation centers and aid agencies.
- Illinois Extension is local in every county in Illinois, making Extension educators and community workers a great clearinghouse for information. For those who are struggling to understand how to begin the recovery process, contact the local Extension office in your county.
- Begin planning for how this crisis will impact your family’s personal finances. Consult the Recovery After Disaster: The Family Financial Toolkit for resources that will guide you through a systematic process for protecting your family’s financial health.
Even though damages can’t be assessed until the water has receded, it’s clear that spring 2019 flooding across Illinois will make the record books. As important as it is to help families and communities navigate the recovery process, it is equally critical to capture and catalogue the lessons learned in order to develop measures to mitigate the impact of future diaster events.
“Illinois Extension is committed to developing and disseminating resources that help our communities prepare for and recover from disasters,” says Nickols-Richardson. “Extension’s strength lies in providing reliable, trustworthy information about best practices for recovery and mitigation.”
Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.