A snow and ice storm of “historic proportions” hit the Midwest hard Thursday. So hard, in fact, that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich declared 49 of 102 counties disaster areas.
More than 250 Soldiers of the Illinois Army National Guard were called up to assess damage in one of the hardest hit areas of Illinois, Macon County, and more specifically, the city of Decatur.
Members of the Springfield-based 233rd Military Police Company, Salem-based D Company, 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry Regiment and A Troop, 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry based in Pontiac, were in place and ready to begin their missions less than 24 hours after getting notified by the Illinois Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. Randal Thomas.
The Decatur Armory was established as the centralized location for the three units during the humanitarian mission in Macon County. Soldiers set up their cots and laid down personal gear in any available space in the armory. One of the four platoons assigned to the 233rd MP Company used the Warrensburg-Harristown Fire Department for shelter because of spatial constraints.
By 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, more than 70 humvees were fueled up and ready for the day’s mission. Col. Robert Pratt, the Task Force Commander, briefed senior leaders from the three units and Joint Forces elements from the State Headquarters about the mission that lay ahead.
Areas of high priority were already established for the Illinois Army National Guard, said Command Sgt. Maj. John Starbody, the Task Force Macom
command sergeant major. “We knew our mission right up front. We knew what we had to do,” said Starbody.
The Illinois Guardsmen began covering rural areas of Macon County and started going door-to-door assessing the snow and ice damage and distributing vital emergency information about warming shelters, cold weather injury symptoms and the dangers of alternate heat sources to residents who stayed in their homes despite not having electricity.
It’s unbelievably good to have three units come together on such short notice and have them work as one cohesive unit while interfacing with other agencies, said Starbody. “A lot of that is due to the first sergeants and senior noncommissioned officer leadership”, he said.
People in Macon County were happy to see us, said Spc. Stephanie Stretch, a military police investigator assigned to the 233rd MP Company. “They were just happy to find something out,” said Stretch, referring to the packet of information distributed door-to-door with emergency contact numbers.
Starbody, a Decatur resident, said, “I know a lot of people without power … It’s unbelievable – the community is very receptive to the Illinois Army National Guard for what they’ve been doing here.”
Soldiers of all three units received the same response from community members as they went door-to-door.
“An elderly woman clearing debris in her yard took me around side of her house and showed me a branch about one foot in diameter that would have fallen on her roof,” said Spc. Christopher Gray assigned to D Company, 2nd Battalion 130th Infantry Regiment.
“It felt good to be helpful. That could have been my grandparent,” said Gray.
“We didn’t come across one person that was not happy to see us.”
Illinois Guardsmen were not alone in this mission. Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and local Macon County and Decatur emergency responders had joined hands in covering the areas as quickly as possible to make sure citizens that remained in their homes were doing OK. If medical attention was needed, a quick call from a Soldier to operations staffed at the Decatur Armory would ensure local police departments, firemen or ambulatory care would be on their way.
First Sgt. Robert Raycraft and Staff Sgt. Adam Yau of A Troop, 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry, witnessed a car accident as they traveled through Decatur.
Both Soldiers, certified Combat Lifesavers, jumped out of their vehicles and rendered aid to both drivers involved in the crash, Raycraft said. Emergency crews were on the scene within minutes to assist, he said.
Hours of operation for this mission were limited to daylight hours only to ensure full safety of assisting personnel. Concerns about downed wires continued to be discussed during ongoing press conferences with all state agencies involved in the relief efforts.
Despite the constraints of winter daylight, Soldiers were able to go to more than 3,400 houses the first day and cover more than 11,000 houses on day two.
Wednesday evening Soldiers prepped their vehicles, conducted After Action Reviews and planned out their remaining areas to be covered on their last day of operations.
Soldiers were able to go door-to-door for more than 14,000 homes in Macon County, identify 118 displaced citizens, and report more than 500 downed wires or poles and 330 damaged houses. With the vital information Soldiers had been gathering since Tuesday morning, potentially dangerous situations were identified and resolved.
“It’s phenomenal we could cover that much area. The speed in which our units were able to thoroughly and carefully cover Macon County surpassed our expectations, said Starbody.
The 1344th Transportation Company based in East St. Louis and the 3637th Maintenance Company based in Springfield, provided similar assistance to the East St. Louis area Saturday and Sunday, going door-to-door to more than 800 houses.