Category Archives: Hazards and Threats

Ides of March = Potential Severe Weather


Really? Well, maybe not the 15th (Ides) of March, but the first day of spring this year is March 20, and as the season changes from winter to spring we do begin to see more severe weather.

To help us be better prepared for those events, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared March 2-8 as National Severe Weather Preparedness week. This year’s focus is on knowing your risk, taking action, and being an example.

Check your regional National Weather Service Forecast office for information about severe weather preparedness for your area.

Today, let’s talk about tornadoes. For an animated look at how tornadoes progress across the United States (all tornadoes, 1950-2012) throughout the year, check this United States Tornadoes blog post by Katie Wheatley.
Looking for information on tornado safety? Nearly every Extension service in the country has tornado safety information posted. Here are a few.

Alabama Cooperative Extension System recently published Tornado Safety in PDF and HTML formats. It offers tips for recognizing conditions that may develop into a tornado. Readers also learn about the difference between watches and warnings, safe and unsafe locations during tornadoes, things your kids can do to get ready, and ways to protect you and your family. Tennessee State University has a handy 2-page (1 sheet if you print front and back) Tornado Safety check sheet.

Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service provides several recommendations for tornado safety away from home. A tornado can strike anywhere at any time. Purdue University has 10 tornado safety tips for its students and faculty. Does your campus have similar tips and resources?

University of Illinois Extension produced Tree House Weather Kids, an interactive website for kids and teachers. There is also a Spanish version.  Extension professionals at the University of Nevada, Oregon State University, and Montana State University collaborated to create Tornado Tabletop Exercise Curriculum: Engaging Youth in Community Emergency Management.

The Extension Disaster Education Network collected resources following the 2011 and 2012 tornado seasons. These resources were identified after affected states indicated there was need for the specific items. Perhaps you can also use them if you work with communities recovering from tornadoes.

You can find many more tornado safety publications and resources from land-grants by using the search term “tornado safety” at eXtension’s one-stop

Soothsayer warning Julius Caesar

Oh, and a piece of trivia about the Ides of March – Julius Caesar was assassinated on that day in 44 BC.

Tornadoes in Illinois – Part IV: From Response to Recovery

Well, we stood down the public information operation in Gifford on day 6 of the response.  As this new week began, the situation is best called short-term recovery.   A Multi-Agency Resource Center, called a MARC, has been established in the local Lutheran Church which was already serving hot meals, accepting material donations and hosting the community meetings.  That part of Champaign County is predominately of German Lutheran heritage.  Thank goodness the church was not damaged.

The K-8 school in town opened yesterday with an assembly.  Mental health professionals will be on hand for a while.  The superintendent/principal (you know it’s a small town when the same person is both) says that they had 98% attendance even though some were driven from hotels 25 miles away.  He’s been a terrific resource during all of this.  The school had minor damage, but lost its bus barn and a number of busses parked inside.   There is still a boil order so hand washing stations have been brought in and bottled water is served.  The menu for lunch is dictated by not having water.   The boil order could continue for months as the water treatment plant was destroyed.

The community remains in good spirits.  They say church was quite full on Sunday.   Fund raising is well underway with various funds being established.  The main one is at the local bank which established a 501c-3 and has already appointed a board to monitor things.  Close to $50,000 is in the account at last report.

It was very hard to pull away as we stood down last Friday.   The media still calls on occasion, but we’re referring the calls to village trustees.  We distributed a list of contact numbers before we left.  I’ve been explaining that our function was in response and they are well into recovery.  We needed to fuel and clean our gear to be ready for the next event.  Very lucky there were not more flat tires.  Lessons like the need for quick tire replacements for emergency vehicles learned in other similar disasters were applied in Gifford.  A fire truck with a flat tire is a fairly useless piece of $500,000 equipment.

While my volunteer work as PIO was established 15 years ago, at least one other Extension office in the state has just been asked to perform that function.  It’s not my call, but our educators and county leaders do have media experience and contacts, have multiple mailing and e-mail lists and generally are pretty good at using social media.  I think distributing public releases that are created by other authorities is a fairly comfortable role.   On the other hand, we have to be cautious of taking on too many duties.  I suggested to the county leader that he consider the other roles they are or will be playing and talk it over with the regional director.  The other caution would be if the tone of the releases moves from fact-based to opinion pieces.

Other roles for Extension are evolving in other parts of the state.  I’ll write about those as we move forward.

After we shut down in Gifford on Friday, I visited Washington on Saturday.  As I mentioned previously, Washington is my home town.  Dad has lived on the same street (yes, it is Main Street) for most of his 83 years.  His home is fine as it is in the center of town and the tornado struck the newer west side.  About 500 homes were destroyed and over a thousand damaged.  The exact numbers will be known soon.

The tornado was a strong F4, a half mile wide, with peak winds of 190mph according to the National Weather Service.  F4 tornadoes are very, very rare in Illinois.  We drove down the state highway that bisects the damage field.  Dad had warned me that it was disorienting in spots.  Just couldn’t quite place where we were.  After a quick trip to Peoria, we came back via the by-pass on the north side of town.  Had a much better and, frankly, more troubling view of the immensity of the debris field and the extent of the destruction.  Also saw just how close the tornado came to the nursing home and one of the larger churches where services were underway at the time.  It seems odd to say it with one fatality and about a hundred people injured, but this could have been much worse.  It is safe to say that everyone in town knows multiple families who lost their homes.

So, we’ll be watching the recovery in several counties and will share how Extension is involved and how it might be included in the long term recovery.

Written on November 26.

Tornadoes in Illinois – Part III: The “Barbie House” and an identified role for Extension

In spite of a drenching rain, debris removal continued apace today.  Too fast in some cases.  Gas lines and sewer lines must be capped for demolition  Not sure that is always happening.  Most electricity that can be restored has been…just 4 homes left.  They are doing a test fill of the water tower tomorrow.  It was in path of the storm.  Could be interesting.  Moving to a Resource Center concept at a local church tomorrow.

Last night a local TV reporter told me he had interviewed some kids at a day are in a nearby town.  One girl told him that they hid in a crawlspace and when they came out, the neighbor’s house looked like a “Barbie House.”   I looked up today and not 400 yards from our media staging area I saw what she meant.

Barbie House
The second floor of this house is partially exposed…just like in a Barbie House.

The mention of daycare brings me to the second concrete area where Extension could play a role.  Our county director told me early this evening that several daycare providers in Gifford are out of business because of the storm damage.  Extension is exploring how to help short and long term.  That seems like a role with which many offices would be comfortable in any disaster where the daycares are out of commission.  I’ll let you know what they decide.

Our unit that includes the badly damaged town of Washington I described in an earlier post is continuing with their planning.  To that end, one staff member has been named the coordinator of that effort, charged with pulling all of the program areas together in a cohesive response.  We’ll report more on that later as well.

Written on November 21.
Check back Thursday for part four of the Tornadoes in Illinois series. 

Tornadoes in Illinois – Part II

I earlier wrote of the tornadoes that devastated parts of Illinois on Sunday, November 17.  Hardest hit was my hometown of Washington, IL, about 80 miles from where I now live.  1 person was killed and dozens injured.  Preliminary estimates are that 400-500 homes may have been destroyed or sustained such damage that they will have to be demolished.  Less than 2 hours after that storm, a different tornado struck Gifford, in Champaign County, where I serve as the volunteer public information officer for our emergency management agency.  More about that as a possible role for Extension employees in a later post.  In the weeks ahead, I plan to document the roles that Extension will play around the state during the long recovery.

Some thoughts as the recovery in Gifford moves along.

First, the Incident Command System does work and, although most of us are taught it’s application in a pretty strict fashion, in practice it can be as flexible as need be and easily scaled to the event.  Practice does help and we have had several major exercises this year.  If nothing else, that gets the parties to know one another.  More later.

Second, there is no mobile command post large enough to hold all of the players.  We are fortunate that the local firehouse is intact, new, and has a great conference room/day room.  A mobile communications trailer is invaluable.  Not only can it help manage the event, it can provide cell service, better than they’ve ever had, to a smaller, rural community.  We went from less than one bar of signal strength to 5 when the trailer was fired up and it is the fasted 3G service I’ve ever had.

Third, in these circumstances, press releases need not be flowery or even full paragraphs.  A collection of relevant bullet points a couple of times a day works well and is easier to accomplish on an IPad with the above mentioned 3G service.

Those are some immediate thoughts.  Today was day two of intensive cleanup and utility restoration.  Water, albeit non-potable water, has been restored which is very meaningful from a sanitation standpoint  As of a couple of hours ago, power was restored to nearly all undamaged homes.   Natural gas is more difficult because of the need to cap lines to damaged homes and will take longer.  With low temperatures in the teens this weekend, that will be a challenge.   At times today resembled an army being mobilized, at least what that looks like in the movies.  The dump trucks, endloaders, claws, etc. descended on the town at 8AM.  I’ve never seen a traffic jam of big yellow tractors before.  Access has been limited to all but specifically requested volunteers so far.  Tomorrow the roadblocks come down.  I’ll let you know how that works.

I’ve been working from the pre-dawn morning TV shows through the evening news and leaving the media on their own for the 10:00PM spots.  So far, so good.  Each day, we’ve been able to improve the location of the impromptu Joint Information Center.

This morning, a reporter asked me about my overall impressions.  I told him what struck me deeply, as I walked from one end of town to the other in the dark after a community meeting were the sounds.  It was like walking through a Surround-Sound extravaganza.  As I moved, I would go from the “beep-beep-beep” of heavy equipment, to the noise of a large truck, to the steady drone of the generators on the light towers, then the smaller generators at homes.  Contrast that to absolute silence in the pre-dawn hours.  No birds.  They have not yet returned.

As I prepared for the umpteenth live interview with local media tonight, I looked down and a rabbit, probably born this past spring, jumped out from under a debris pile that was being scooped by a loader.  I pointed it out to the young reporter who had earlier been over in Washington, and she/we almost cried.  A symbol of rebirth.

Written on November 20, 2013
Check back Wednesday for part three of the Tornadoes in Illinois series.

Tornadoes in Illinois – Part I: Responding to Disaster

Storm damage in Gifford, IL. Courtesy of Rick Atterberry

As many of you know, Illinois and other states endured violent and deadly tornadoes on Sunday, November 17.  By far the most significant damage in Illinois was in Washington, IL and other Tazewell County communities and Gifford, IL NW of Champaign-Urbana.

I’ve just returned home after working 14 and 15 hour days in Gifford as the PIO for the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency.  I’ll attempt to chronicle some first hand lessons learned in the days ahead.

What is the initial takeaway in the first day of recovery?  We humans are more resilient than we think.  Sure we complain from time to time about people who don’t plan for a disaster, aren’t prepared to be self-sufficient, etc.  And that is often the case.  But when the chips are down, people have a way of putting things in perspective, at least in the early days. 

While taking media members on a walk-in to the most heavily damaged area, where about two dozen homes were completely destroyed, I expected some pushback as the TV folks attempted to interview affected residents…the word “victim” does not apply.  Time and time again, they reflected on the miracle that only six people sustained non-life threatening injuries.  What was important was that they were safe and their friends and families were safe.  And, this sentiment was reflected with uncommon grace and good humor.  Laughter, especially self-deprecating laughter, does heal.

I’m not prone to sentiment, and maybe I’m just tired, but those words and actions were very meaningful.  Made all the more so because, you see, Washington, IL, which was hit by an F4 tornado, is my home town and home to family, all of whom are okay.  Two of the three houses, not so much, but still habitable.

I’ve been reading dozens of Facebook posts and some commonalities between Washington and Gifford strike home. In both communities, sheltered-care facilities were spared by a couple of hundred yards.  In both communities, people are grateful that the schools were not seriously damaged, those schools being a pillar of the two towns.  In both, first responders swooped down to conduct a painstaking door to door search for casualties.  While Washington had one fatality and several dozen injuries, there is agreement, as there is in Gifford, that it could have been much worse.

What does the future hold?  We’ll see.  At first it will be little victories…the return of electricity and gas, the ability to flush the toilet, the first green grass next spring, the checks from the insurers.   And then?  What happens during the long slog of rebuilding?

We’ll see.  In the months ahead I’ll do my best to document the recovery and, to bring us back to a less emotional view, the lessons learned.   One Facebook message tonight included these words from Washington Mayor Gary Manier, a classmate of a sibling.  “Today we can, Together we will.”  And those words were written before the tornado.  A second posting shows that the good spirit is not reserved for those of us of somewhat advanced age.  The Washington High School football team has advanced to the state quarter finals.  Last week they doubled the score on rival University High of Normal.  This week, the same Uni High players are feeding the Washington players while they practice at Illinois State University in Normal since school has been cancelled in Washington as the complex has no power and is very near the worst damage.  New friendships for life after a devastating loss.

Check back Monday for part two of the Tornadoes in Illinois series. 

Family Preparedness Friday

Who Turned the Lights Out?

When temperatures dip to the single digits, and the winds are blowing in from the north, and snow is piling up at your front door, what’s your plan for when the power goes out?

Photo attributed to Flickr user Roadsidepictures.

Photo attributed to Flickr user Roadsidepictures.

Unfortunately , winter power outages are not an uncommon occurrence in many parts of our country. If you live in one of these areas, here are some tips to help you and your family get through the next power outage.

  •  If you have no alternative heat, you can consider staying in an emergency shelter, call your local fire or police department or local Red Cross chapter for shelter locations.
  • Call your power provider, if your power is likely to be out for more than a few days, you may want to call your plumber and ask about draining your home’s water pipes so they don’t freeze and burst.
  • Keep your car’s gas tank full. You never know if you may need to go to a warming station or emergency shelter.
  • Wear layers of clothing. Layering can keep insulating air between layers to help keep you warmer. Remember to keep your head and hands covered.
  • Cook using charcoal or propane grills – ONLY OUTSIDE.
  • Put aside buckets of snow and melt it to use in toilets.
  • Keep a land line phone, you won’t have to worry about charging a cell phone.

You might also consider stocking up on:

  • Candles, oil lamps, lanterns and matches
  • Battery operated weather radio
  • Flashlights and batteries for  each family member
  • Non-perishable food items
  • Bottled water
  • Propane for an OUTDOOR grill
  • Extra gasoline if you have a generator. A portable electric generator can be a valuable backup source of power to operate your furnace and appliances.
  • First-aid supplies
  • Emergency numbers – fire, police, doctor
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Paper goods: Paper plates, paper towels, plastic ware

Source: “Winter Power Outages: Be prepared for that unexpected winter power outage” from Michigan State University Extension

Touring Wisconsin Dairyland

EDEN’s annual meeting didn’t officially begin until the opening reception Tuesday evening, but those of us who arrived in time to join the October 8th tour got an early taste of what was to come. Cheryl Skjolaas, meeting host, arranged three stops that highlighted two important Wisconsin economic drivers: agriculture and tourism.

Cheryl Skjolaas introduces Justin Pope of Foremost Farms

Cheryl Skjolaas introduces Justin Pope of Foremost Farms.

First stop was Foremost Farms in Baraboo. This is a farmer-owned milk processing and marketing cooperative with nearly 2,000 member-owners located in the upper Midwest. Justin Pope, director of environmental health, safety and sustainability, shared lessons learned from real events and exercises. Processing plants can be affected by contamination, disease outbreak, or physical catastrophes. Like many other businesses, Foremost Farms has developed a continuity of operations plan–and has had to implement it on more than one occasion. A highlight of the presentation was discussion of their enterprise-wide exercise of response to discovery of Foot and Mouth Disease in the state.

We also visited a milk producer, the New Chester Dairy. The  facility has 8,600 cows and operates two rotary parlors, milking approximately 8,000 cows three times a day. All cows are housed on premise in climate-moderated, covered barns and fed feed mix created on site. It was fascinating. While not every state has a large dairy industry, all of us can appreciate the need for biosecurity and farm facility security–poor sanitation, disease, theft, and other problems have a direct impact on the economic welfare of the operation.

EDEN tour group at New Chester Dairy in front of milk transport trucks.

EDEN tour group at New Chester Dairy in front of milk transport trucks.


Meg Galloway, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, describes the 2008 Lake Delton washout and subsequent reparation.

Meg Galloway, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, describes the 2008 Lake Delton washout and subsequent reparation.

Sandwiched between dairy stops was a visit with Meg Galloway (Chief, Dams and Floodplain Management Section, Bureau of Watershed Management, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources). She met us on Lake Delton‘s earthen dam. As chief, she was responsible for coordinating break reparation after a road embankment washed out on June 8, 2008. Most of the 267-acre lake drained in two hours. Lake Delton was formed in 1927 to attract tourists to the Wisconsin Dells area. It was very successful and has been a key tourism destination ever since. Repairing the 400-foot break, which also took out a section of County Highway A, was a huge task.The repair proceeded hastily because it was tied to the highway reconstruction and was a priority for the area tourism. The lake resort was able to reopen just one year later.

The tone was set. We returned to the University of Wisconsin Pyle Center in time for our opening reception and kickoff to the 2013 EDEN Annual Meeting.

Next week we’ll highlight a few of the meeting sessions.


“Managing #Drought” Tweet Chat with @EDENTweets

The heavy flooding in Denver and surrounding areas have temporarily focused national attention on Colorado. In the meantime, the EDEN Drought Team continues to focus on #drought recovery and mitigation resources.


September 10, 2013 drought map

On Tuesday, September 24, the Extension Disaster Education Network (@EDENTweets) will host its inaugural tweet chat. The one-hour chat, Managing #Drought, will begin at 3 PM Central, 2 PM Mountain Time.

Co-hosts are New Mexico State University Extension, the National Drought Mitigation Center (@DroughtCenter) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the National Integrated Drought Information System (@Drought_Info).

The chat will provide an opportunity to share resources that can help people and communities respond to an ongoing #drought or reduce vulnerability to future #drought.

Follow and join the conversation on (hashtag #drought).

We look forward to chatting with you!

Dog Days of Summer

Linus tells Sally about dog days of summer in today’s Peanuts comic strip. Those of us in the northern hemisphere are smack in the middle of the dog days since July and August are typically our hottest summer temperatures.

EDEN delegates identified several resources for staying safe in extreme heat. They range from advice for the elderly to advice about working outdoors. Delegates also identified resources that provide advice about livestock, pets and crops.

And just for fun…

Things to Do With Kids in a Heat Wave

Comic Weather Jokes

How do you stay safe and have fun in a heat wave?


Two Dogs Playing in the Waves


Family Preparedness Friday

Here I Am . . . 

All together now, “ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE!”


I am not ashamed to admit that I did my best ’80s headbanging, obnoxiously loud signing at my desk as I wrote that. I think every Friday should come with a does of mid-80s hairbands.

And back to the serious. :(

This week is National Hurricane Preparedness Week.; I know it’s crazy to think hurricane season is back upon.

If you are a coastal family what have you done to ready yourself for hurricane season? Have you been informed? Have you made a kit? Have you created a plan?

Now is the time to be prepared.

If you are looking for interesting ways to become informed and engage your child at the same time, check out these webinars from The Hurricane: Science and Society Team at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography. The webinars are geared towards the 5th grade age bracket, but all family members will be able to find useful information. And better yet, the webinars are region specific, so you can find the one that best accommodates where you live.

For hurricane information from EDEN, visit