On the morning of March 1 last year, Ottawa Building Official Mike Sutfin was scheduled to attend an update review of the city’s disaster response plan — specifically for a simulated tornado.
“Instead, we were doing it for real,” he said.
The previous evening a devastating tornado raked across Buffalo Rock State Park, Naplate and Ottawa before heading to points east.
Disaster response is part of Sutfin’s job. Flooding is his area of expertise, but that’s a different animal than tornadoes, he said.
“There are some similar elements of preparation, but the two events are nothing alike,” he said.
“With flooding you’re forewarned — you might get a day, maybe two, of notice before you actually flood,” he said. “Fighting flooding is precisely that. You fight back, you get past it and often can recover rather quickly.
“But a tornado is like a sucker punch,” he said. “You get smashed in the face and before you get up off the ground it’s over.”
And the recovery is much, much longer, Sutfin noted.
To date, about $39 million in damage has been tracked — not including perhaps another $25 million to the Pilkington glass factory, he said.
Yet today, after issuing some 1,100 no-fee building permits, there’s still significant tornado damage that’s not yet repaired, he said.
There are a variety of reasons, but a common one is that many property owners were surprised to learn they were underinsured, or that they didn’t have “code upgrade” insurance. In other words, Sutfin explained, the tornado victim’s insurance covered only the replacement of what was lost, and not the cost of work according to mandatory code updates.
“I’m disappointed to see people get that result,” he said.
Even so, from the city’s side there was a well-coordinated response, Sutfin said.
“I talked to virtually everybody on the South Side since the tornado,” he said. “And I have not heard one citizen say one bad thing about our response. I think the people on the South Side felt safe and protected, even though it was dark and pouring rain and half of their roof blown off.”
First of all, Sutfin said, the community was well-warned. Sirens and phone alerts got the message out fast.
Then, once the tornado passed, the heavily-struck South Side neighborhood was sealed off by the police.
“Nobody was going in or out,” Sutfin said.
The city’s police and firemen canvassed the area, walking up and down the streets, checking to be sure everybody was OK, and providing assistance where needed.
“That went extremely well and I think our first responders deserve a hats off, because they did such a remarkable job,” Sutfin said.
Mutual aid response from other police departments and public works departments also were crucial, he said.
“It was incredible the amount of help that we received immediately from those towns,” he said.
Initially, no one but first responders and residents were allowed into the devastated area.
“We didn’t need the gawkers and people with no business there,” Sutfin said.
At first, that also included contractors anxious to make contact with property owners with damaged buildings.
“They were screaming,” Sutfin said. “But we couldn’t take the chance of having fly-by-nighters coming in and taking advantage of our residents — although it did happen in a couple of cases. They flew into town, got people to give them a deposit, and that’s the last that was seen of them. But we nipped that pretty early on.”
All contractors needed to be bonded and get a city license. They all also needed to undergo a background check — even the ones already licensed. This was done quickly and by the first day after the tornado 300 contractors had been given access badges by the police.
One of the first tasks was to clear the streets of debris and downed trees to allow access, especially to emergency vehicles.
“That first night a couple of tree companies worked until 1 or 2 in the morning to get the streets cleared off,” Sutfin said.
Ultimately, the city ended up with some 50,000 to 80,000 cubic yards of trees and tree limbs that were processed though a drum grinder located in Allen Park along the Illinois River.
“They set it up so the mulch got shot into these waiting big semitrailers,” Sutfin said. “I think they got rid of all that stuff in about two days.”
Ameren Electric also provided a professional response, bringing in an army of some 450 linemen to replace more than 100 broken power poles and restore electricity within days, Sutfin said.
“That was pretty amazing, considering the amount of damage there was,” he said.
Sutfin noted there were no cases of looting.
The closest was temporary absconsion of The Little Yellow House Library located at Second Avenue and Van Buren Street. The little free library was damaged in the tornado and stood on the sidewalk still in use but awaiting repairs when it was taken — but later returned.
"There was a happy ending there," Sutfin said.