Study Surveys Impact of Leap Day IllinoisTornado

March 1, 2013
Many homes in this area were totally destroyed or extensively damaged by the deadly February EF4 tornado. George Armstrong/FEMA
Many homes in this area were totally destroyed or extensively damaged by the deadly February EF4 tornado. George Armstrong/FEMA

On Leap Day last year, the largest natural disaster in Illinois in 2012 devastated a small town in Southern Illinois. Since the Feb. 29 EF-4 level tornado that tore through Harrisburg one year ago—hitting the ground with a force of 175-180 miles per hour and leaving eight people dead, injuring many others and destroying more than 250 homes—Western Illinois University Department of Health Sciences Emergency Management Assistant Professor Jack Rozdilsky has been on site close to 10 times to study the response and recovery efforts of the small town’s stretched emergency management resources.

Rozdilsky, who teaches in the WIU health science department’s emergency management program, was uniquely positioned to conduct the study. Not only does he reside in Illinois and is a member of the faculty of the state’s only emergency management bachelor’s degree program, but he also has an ongoing working relationship with the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center and its quick response grant program.

“I often work cooperatively on research projects at the Natural Hazards Center, and I have completed a quick response study previously. (That one was related to volcanic hazards in the eastern Caribbean.) Once I learned of the tornado in Harrisburg, I knew I was the closest researcher (who does this sort of research) to it, so I started the process to activate a quick-response project,” he explained.

His visits and data gathering have culminated in the qualitative study, “Disaster Management with Limited Local Resources: The 2012 Illinois Leap Day EF-4 Tornado.”

The research was funded by a grant from the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center through its Quick Response Grant Program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As an invited emergency management expert and sole researcher on this NSF-funded study, Rozdilsky will present his findings at the National Tornado Summit, set for March 10-12, in Oklahoma City (OK).

The findings, he noted, will help provide small, rural, oftentimes economically challenged, communities—such as Harrisburg, with a population of around 9,000, and many communities in the state and across the Midwest—with helpful information about how to manage future tornado disasters.

“The Southern Illinois Saline County Emergency Management Agency did a commendable job in managing this very large incident with extremely limited resources,” Rozdilsky said. “But, based on my research, I found there were adaptations that needed to be made for this very small agency to manage this very large crisis. In general, in small towns in rural America, there is very little public funding for local emergency management agencies. In this case, there was a lack of an permanent emergency operations center, so they set it up a temporary one in courtroom in a local courthouse. This was part of the agency’s disaster response plan, but about two weeks into the response process, it was clear the center needed to be moved because, firstly, the courthouse needed the space back and, secondly, it was not large enough. This involuntary use of multiple temporary emergency operations center sites made disaster management more complicated than it needed to be,” he added.

Last fall, during one of Rozdilsky’s many visits to Harrisburg while conducting his research, he was able to take a few Western students who are studying emergency management in the health sciences department’s program to the disaster response location. He said it provided them with hands-on experience in the field, and it helped the emergency management personnel in Harrisburg and Saline County, as well.

“They were able to assist the local emergency management office in looking at issues related to the operations center and help them start with future planning. When we go out into the field and study these types of events in real-world situations, it creates opportunities for emergency management students to interact with practitioners and learn about the challenges of managing them,” he noted.

In addition to the limited resources available locally and from the State of Illinois, a particularly controversial challenge to the recovery in Harrisburg and Saline County was the denial of a federal disaster declaration, resulting in very little federal government financial assistance for individuals and communities hit by the tornado.

According to a Sept. 2 (2012) Chicago Tribune article by Ryan Haggerty, in March last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied two requests for aid from Harrisburg and other southern Illinois towns in five counties damaged by tornadoes that Leap Day. Haggerty’s article noted a FEMA spokesman said at the time “that officials determined assistance from state and local agencies, along with volunteer groups and insurance, would be enough for the towns to rebuild on their own.”

According to Alan Ninness, the emergency management director for the Saline County Emergency Agency, said while there is no exact monetary sum calculated for the total damage, costs, which are still being accrued, likely top the $100 million mark.

“Early on we had a preliminary estimate for just the business community alone of about $25.5 million,” Ninness said. “That’s not counting the expenses the local government has put in, the state, as well as all the different entities. I think they said $13 million the State of Illinois pledged to the recovery effort, not to mention all the insurance costs. We’re probably into the hundreds of millions of dollars at this point.”

Today, Ninness said, much of the bricks-and-mortar damage caused by the tornado has been completed.

“Not everyone is back in a home, and there is still building and rebuilding going on, but the majority of that part of it is done. The clean up was done rather quickly—a lot of the recovery now is not of the brick-and-mortar type but on a more personal level,” he noted. “We’re always cognizant of those folks—the eight people we lost, the ones who were injured and the ones, to this day, who are still dealing with the trauma of the storm.”

According to Rozdilsky, the one-year mark, in disasters of such magnitude, is an early milestone in the recovery effort. He said, generally, that process takes five to eight years.

“We have to commend these agencies, people and business in these small towns for doing what they do. The gaps in management capacity were filled from community generosity and voluntary service,” he said. “But the dependence on that is so heavy, it is dangerously so.”

For more information and/or to obtain a copy of “Disaster Management with Limited Local Resources: The 2012 Illinois Leap Day EF-4 Tornado,” contact Rozdilsky at (309) 298-1621 or via email at

Source: Western Illinois University

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