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U.S. Disaster Relief

Critical Infrastructure Investments after a Disaster Help Communities Heal and Grow

  • December 23, 2014
  • North America, US Disasters, Emergency Response Blog
Kate Dischino

Kate Dischino

Kate Dischino oversees Americares preparedness, response and recovery programs in the U.S. and around the world. 

A water tower can represent something far more important in the life of a small community than just the village name on the tank.

When a series of tornadoes swept across seven states on Sunday November 17, 2013, AmeriCares responded quickly with critically needed relief items, such as tetanus vaccine, to local health partners in the hardest hit areas of Illinois working to treat and protect disaster survivors, responders and volunteers.

Based on the scale of damage, we knew these damaged communities would face a long recovery. At a coordination meeting in the Village of Gifford, a rural community located in Champaign County, Illinois, we met with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs), Emergency Managers and community leaders to discuss recovery

Now the impact of a disaster response and recovery effort is determined largely by asking the right questions of key people in a community and listening carefully to the answers.

The presence of the emergency manager presented an important opportunity to pose two key questions: “What are the most urgent health needs? What are the biggest gaps?”

The Emergency Situation

Initially, we learned the tornado had damaged 200 homes, nearly two-thirds of the homes where the 1,000 residents of the village live. Upon further questioning, we also learned there was significant damage to the Village’s critical infrastructure, particularly the water system. The water tower had sustained structural damage and the water treatment plant was demolished. Prior to the tornados, the village water tower held 50,000 gallons and served one-third of the community. In the weeks after the storm, the village depended on a 10,000 gallon emergency water tank, less than one-fifth of the pre-storm capacity.

The emergency water capacity was critical to a small community. But the damage to the system combined with Gifford’s future water needs suggested the need for a more complex and comprehensive solution. So we waited while the Village completed damage assessments and submitted requests for disaster assistance. Ultimately, their request was not approved, leaving the Village scrambling to find funds to start addressing urgent and long-term recovery needs.

The Time to Act

When we were confident our aid was necessary – and that it did not duplicate services or jeopardize requests for other funding assistance – AmeriCares stepped in to finance immediate repairs to the Village’s damaged water tower. But that was only the first half of the solution.

After further evaluation, AmeriCares made a second commitment to Gifford and filled a gap which enabled the Village to initiate a long-term water solution. Before structural repairs were made, the tower was completely out of service and unable to hold any water. The village was forced to outsource its fire protection and could not properly flush their water mains, jeopardizing water quality and posing health risks to the community. In infrastructure projects, repairs combined with a long-term solution are costly. If AmeriCares had not provided assistance, the Village would have been forced to spread the cost across its tax base, further complicating the recovery process for survivors.

AmeriCares assistance addressed immediate and long-term health needs; and also relieved financial burdens for already struggling disaster survivors.

The new water tower, slated to be built in 2015, is necessary as the current one does not meet the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements for size and volume. Until then, the Village is grateful that AmeriCares supported the immediately-needed repairs that will serve the village for well over a year.