Illinois Tornado Relief from a Logistics Point of View

illinois tornado logistics
“The little activate ‘em heat pack hand warmers? We couldn’t get enough of them,” Sheehy said. “Name a store. We cleaned them out."

It’s in the details you can see a disaster relief operation take shape.

Seventy-two Midwestern tornadoes reported during an outbreak on Nov. 17. Five dead. Scores injured.

In the hours after the storm passed, the American Red Cross set up a command center. St. Louis, Chicago and Peoria, Illinois became the hubs to help a region recover. The request went out through the Red Cross: Who is able to spend two weeks, including Thanksgiving, away from family to help the Midwest?

Brian Sheehy answered that call for his first deployment. In Massachusetts he’s the Red Cross Logistics Program Support Manager who has helped our region after the February blizzard and the Boston Marathon Bombing – in addition to hundreds of house fires. In Peoria he was to help with logistics, but as a “Logistics Supply Associate.”

“Anytime somebody needs something, it needs to go to supply. Then it needs to be transferred and supplied,” Sheehy explained. With an operation as large as one set up after an E4 tornado, few people do several jobs. In Illinois, each person had a specific task to do. While explaining he was essentially pushing paper, Sheehy described how he documented a relief effort being set up and all the pieces that go into making sure people have what they need after an E4 tornado rips through towns like Washington, Illinois, destroying 400 homes.

There were the forms noting where the shelter was open but the power was out. Requisition forms note the generators that were moved into place to get the power on for those who had lost everything. Red Cross volunteers left a paper trail, hitting sandwich shops to quickly feed people as dinner time rolled around.

As the relief operation grew, the full scale of the needs of people in Indiana and Illinois were put down on paper: There was the request for space for a kitchen. Then in came the equipment to support a kitchen, and the propane for the kitchen equipment. A storage area for dry food, a refrigerated truck for fresh food…and requests for Emergency Response Vehicles to pick up the meals were moved through headquarters.

As the days grew, in came the request for the Multi-Agency Resource Center. Needed was a place to put people from several agencies that help recovery – state officials, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross. Tables and chairs were requested so people had a place to fill out paperwork. And then came the request for the forms themselves. Flyers telling the people of Pekin, Ill where the center would be located … these moved through supply too.

Once the operation was up and running, supply staff started to take account of everything that had been purchased, donated, or pulled from stock from Chicago to St. Louis. But the requests kept coming in. As the days got colder the requests went from cots in shelters to a tent for a warming center near the worst of the damage in Washington, Ill. As families picked through rubble looking for photos and other items, the biggest request was for hand warmers.

“The little activate ‘em heat pack hand warmers? We couldn’t get enough of them,” Sheehy said. “Name a store. We cleaned them out. We had to figure out, ‘where do you get thousands of something like that?”

But the paperwork noting each donation didn’t tell the whole story. There was the contractor who gave the Red Cross two propane tanks for patio heaters in the tent where homeowners could take a break between shifts sorting through rubble. There were the donations coming in from local employer Caterpillar, and support from its headquarters staff. There were the Red Cross people “coming in from the square states” as Sheehy described them, with years of knowledge of disaster relief behind them. And there was the practice of making sure the folks on the trucks delivering relief supplies were local to Illinois.

“They really are Midwestern folks,” Sheehy said. “They really believe in neighbors being there to help neighbors.”

Toward the end of his two-week deployment, Sheehy was able to see – and document – the operation as it wound down. Nearly 1,000 volunteers were assigned to the operation. Red Crossers Leon Shaw, the warehouse manager, and Supply Manager Shawn Scott-Fitzgerald were among them, making sure the donated blankets, water and Gatorade would be put to good use. And trucks that needed to be gassed up and serviced before heading back to places like Wisconsin. All documented to make sure donor dollars are properly spent, all with the right forms attached.

“It was nice to see the whole thing working together,” Sheehy said of the Illinois operation. “I’m now more prepared to react quickly to a local disaster to get logistics to succeed early in the game. We don’t wait for the experts to show up. We get pieces moving when they’re needed.”