County wants resident input for stalled disaster plan

Jay Reardon (left), CEO of the state Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, talks last fall with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (center) and Michael Masters (right) executive director of the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, about an Urban Search and Rescue drill about to be underway at Glenview's Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy. Federal funding for such drills may be easier to come by after the county's disaster plan is finished and approved. | Sun-Times Media file photo
Jay Reardon (left), CEO of the state Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, talks last fall with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (center) and Michael Masters (right) executive director of the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, about an Urban Search and Rescue drill about to be underway at Glenview's Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy. Federal funding for such drills may be easier to come by after the county's disaster plan is finished and approved. | Sun-Times Media file photo

If the tornadoes that ripped through central Illinois last month had to occur, they may have struck at an opportune time for Cook County.

Cook County has natural disaster-preparation public meetings scheduled for next week, and more people may actually attend – just because they’ve had a good scare.

“Nobody wants to wake up and have what happened to Washington, Ill., happen to them,” said Michael Masters, executive director of the Cook County department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The meetings are for public input and education regarding the Cook County Multi-Jurisdictional All Hazards Mitigation Plan. The plan is, as the name indicates, intended to prepare for, not respond, to natural and man-made disasters.

That plan is a long time coming – stalled for years, officials say. Lake and DuPage counties have had their natural hazard plans filed for seven years. McHenry County, three years. Will County, eight years.

Cook County will be ready to ask the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to approve its plan in spring, 2014.

All that delay could be a big deal, because federal hazard mitigation money can’t flow into any jurisdiction in the county without a federally-approved natural hazards preparation plan. Masters won’t guess at how many millions of dollars have already gone elsewhere, instead of Cook County jurisdictions, because of that.

When Toni Preckwinkle took over the presidency of the Cook County Board in 2010, a $480,000 grant to put a plan together was already in hand, Masters said.

“Upon taking over the department (in May 2011), I noted that the grant had been awarded, but little or nothing had been done to complete it” under the Todd Stroger administration, he said.

And it seemed impossible to get a credible plan put together before the award would expire. The county filed for an extension, and for another grant, to expand the plan to non-natural hazards, bringing the total budget up to $652,000.

“For a county with 134 jurisdictions, with a forest preserve district, a water reclamation district, zoos, libraries, park districts – that amount of money, while significant, was not enough to get us where we were going to go,” said Masters, a former Chicago Police Department chief of staff.

A series of meetings of a steering committee composed of leaders of the jurisdictions within Cook County have been held for months, as the plan is being developed by a contractor, Tetra Tech, a California-based environmental management company. One of the co-chairs of the steering committee is Northbrook Village President Sandy Frum, who represents the 42 communities of The Northwest Municipal Conference, of which she is president.

Frum said she looks forward to the progress of the plan, because it lays the groundwork for federal money for flood control.

“I want to attach the whole (Northbrook) Stormwater Master Plan” to the document, she said.

Other counties’ mitigation plans are heavy on flood control, but they also contain recommendations for dam safety, earthquakes, blizzards, fires and riverbank collapse – as well as high wind/tornado damage mitigation, beyond the usual early-warning efforts that are already prevalent throughout the area.

Some of the plans recommend local building code upgrades for tornado resistance, including standards in new or improved homes to give roofs a better chance of remaining intact, and staying atop walls.

Other recommendations include tornado “safe rooms,” places for people to hide in that would be relatively protected even if the rest of the building were blown away.

Though Cook County is not known for a lot of tornado damage, they do strike the area. The worst was on April 21, 1967, when five tornadoes came through. One that tore through Oak Lawn and Chicago’s South Side killed 33 people.

Tetra Tech has completed extensive studies of the history of natural disasters in Cook County, and they will likely comprise much of the finished project. All that information also has been fed into a database, which is likely to be a high point of the upcoming meetings.

“People will be able to actually put in their address and see the likelihood of a flood or tornado or other disaster on their property,” Frum said.

Cook County residents can go to any of three meetings, all held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. : Monday, Dec. 9, at Homewood Village Hall, 2020 Chestnut Road; Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Northbrook Village Hall, 1225 Cedar Lane; and Thursday, Dec. 12, at Village of Westchester, 10300 W. Roosevelt Road.

The planning group wants as many people as possible to take its survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/CookCountyHazMit. Not only will more information about hazards be gleaned by the planners from the answers, but survey-takers will get some ideas about individual preparation for disasters – such as anchoring furnaces and water-heaters, and storing food and water, a disaster supply kit and a weather radio.

Masters said that no matter how well-prepared your local governments are, it’s likely that “for the first 72 hours, you’re on your own.”

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