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Severe Weather Preparedness
Local experts say as storm season approaches, preparedness is key

CARBONDALE — Spring has teased Southern Illinois in recent weeks — warm weather and sunshine have excited gardeners and given hope to daffodils and other spring flowers.

It has also hinted at spring weather with heavy rains and even some strong storms — meaning it may be time to revisit severe weather preparedness plans, experts say.

“Any time you go into the spring season, you’ve got to be ready,” said Christine Wielgos, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Paducah. She said severe weather can happen at any time — 2016’s winter flood fight and 2017’s February EF-4 tornado are examples — however she said April and May are typically the big months for tornadoes and strong storms.

“Forty-six percent of all of our tornadoes in this area have occurred in April and May,” she said, pointing to data she read for the last 20 years.

Wielgos and others made the point that being ready and paying attention to the weather are the best defense against dangerous storms. She said making sure to keep up-to-date with forecasts this time of year is crucial to staying safe.

Kelly Urhahn, Williamson County’s emergency management coordinator, said when she and her office educate people about storm preparedness, they focus on being ready for multiple hazards — what people can do to kill two birds with one stone.

“If you can prepare for more than one hazard with a bunch of things, then you are doing a lot better than having a bunch of different go-bags for a bunch of different hazards,” she said.

One big item was communication — making sure families have a plan for how to reach one another should disaster strike. She said this is particularly important for kids. Urhahn stressed that young people should know how to get in touch with parents or relatives.

One concrete tip Urhahn had for communication was to have a point of contact outside the state.

“Most of the time those long distance phone calls will work,” she said of times when cellular communication may be limited.

Urhahn also said having an all-purpose survival kit is always a good idea — she said things like non-perishable foods, radios and batteries are good things to have set aside, be it for a tornado or even a flood.

Flood preparedness is something Karen Hall admits she hadn’t given a lot of thought before December 2015. A resident of Jacob and originally from Chester, Hall said she grew up around the Mississippi River but never had to consider how it might force her out of her home.

A year after flood, river town residents say high waters part of their culture

RADDLE — Herbert Korando sits in his living room watching his family gather up the contents of his house and load them into cars and trucks. They have discussions about what should go and what can stay. Family photos and heirlooms are carefully packed and taken out. The 84-year-old is not sure what the fuss is about. He has seen high water before and is not scared by the reports coming from the Army Corps of Engineers that the river would crest just below 50 feet, the maximum capacity for the levees just miles from his house.

This changed in January 2016. Hall and her family found themselves scrambling to move items out of their home as water rose all around them.

“We had never experienced that before,” Hall said of having to pack up and move out of their house in a matter of days.

She said things were not organized in a way that they could move important items first. Looking back on this time, Hall said her family learned what was of value to them.

“We found that you can live without a lot of things,” Hall said, adding that the people in their lives were what was most important.

That said, though, Hall said after getting back — they had to leave home for seven days — she has left a lot of their things in the plastic totes they were put in during the flood. This will make it easier to should they ever have to vacate again. She also said they cut way back on things there holding on to.

Storage is something Urhahn touched on, too. She said keeping important documents in waterproof containers is a good idea, but she said technology has created an even better option in her mind. She said scanning documents and storing them to online cloud-based storage services like Dropbox or Google Docs could be useful after a disaster.

“Those tools are there; people just have to be educated on them,” Urhahn said.

Urhahn said in Williamson County there are other services she hopes residents take advantage of. She said the EMA has an agreement with the Lions Club to help after severe weather. Her office keeps lists of vulnerable persons and their addresses so that in times of crisis, members of the club can go check on these residents.

Urhahn said she also keeps a list of storm shelter locations that is used after major weather events. She said first responders will use this list, which is kept locked up until it is needed, to know where to check for residents after a storm. If someone is not found at their home, they will also be searched for in their storm shelter if they are on the list.

Remnants of previous weeks’ bad weather are still in the region. The U.S. 51 bridge at Cairo reopened Thursday afternoon after it was closed this past Friday because of high Ohio River levels. In Metropolis, there is still a river flood warning. According to an 8 p.m. update from the National Weather Service on Wednesday, the Ohio River was at 52.6 feet. It said flood stage begins at 37 feet.

Wielgos said while she had no projections to give about what this year’s storm season could look like and just how severe it could be, she stressed that being informed was the best advice she could give.

Urhahn said one way to stay on top of local weather and emergencies is through the NIXLE messaging services. This is a text-messaging service that, according to its website, provides users with information from their local emergency responders and school systems. To sign up for the service, users should text their zip code to 888777.

Hall said since the flood in 2016, she and her family take forecasts a lot more seriously.

“You pay more attention to announcements and things like that,” she said. “You don’t take it for granted that ‘Oh, things will be fine.’”

Hall even uses their experience to remind her kids to clean their rooms.

“Now, what if you had to pack this room really quick?” she asks them when their rooms get messy.

After all the discussion about preparedness, Urhahn circled back to one main theme.

“If I could encourage anyone to do anything is to have as many layers as possible when it comes to communication,” she said.

Isaac Smith, The Southern 

Karen Hall (right) looks out over her backyard with her 15-year-old daughter, Miriah Hall, Dec. 29, 2015 in Jacob. The day before, Karen’s children had used wooden pallets to make a dock in the standing floodwater behind their home.

The Southern File Photo  

Strong winds whip around a tree outside the Christian Covenant Fellowship on May 8, 2009. The pavilion in the background had just fallen.

Simon Poll
Simon Poll: Half of Illinois voters see cuts in government waste, inefficiency as budget solution

CARBONDALE — At a time when public educational institutions, social service providers, and state and local governments are struggling to emerge from Illinois’ multi-year budget impasse, 51 percent of registered voters say the solution to the state’s $1.5 billion budget deficit is to cut “waste and inefficiency in government.”

Meanwhile, 10 percent of those responding to a statewide poll about the state’s budget by Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, believe the solution is more revenue while another 28 percent say the problem requires a combination of revenues and cuts.

Institute staff John T. Shaw, director; John Jackson, visiting professor; and Linda Baker, university professor, will discuss these and other recent poll findings Thursday in the Student Center Auditorium.

Results from The Simon Poll show that while voters consistently believe cutting waste and inefficiency in state government could solve the budget crisis, voters have also been unable to agree on where to cut. When offered a choice of major budget categories from which to cut spending:

• 29 percent chose higher education

• 17 percent chose health and human services

• 6 percent chose K-12 education.

The largest response category, however, was a volunteered “none of the above,” at 32 percent.

“This year, as in years past, our poll shows the people of Illinois support spending cuts in the abstract, but are reluctant to endorse specific spending cuts. This underscores one of the essential reasons for our state’s seemingly intractable budget problems. The people of Illinois seem to be saying, ‘Please cut spending, but we have no idea of where to actually cut spending — and stay clear of the programs that we like,’” Shaw said.

There are some areas in which a majority of voters support increasing revenue, starting with 76 percent favoring the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” which would impose an extra 3 percent levy on income over $1 million.

Nearly as many, 72 percent, favor a constitutional amendment to allow a graduated income tax, with higher rates for higher earners and lower rates for lower earners.

By a slight margin, 49 percent to 46 percent, respondents favored legalized gambling in Illinois to raise state revenues.

Less popular proposals favored were taxes on gasoline to fund highway, road and bridge improvements (42 percent) and a sales tax on services (39 percent).

A recurring idea is for the state to tax retirement income, such as pensions and social security. This idea is widely unpopular, with 74 percent opposing and only 22 percent in favor.

However, in a follow-up question in which only retirement income above $100,000 would be taxed, majorities are in favor.

Combining the 22 percent who favored it in the first question with the 52 percent of the 745 initial opponents who would favor it with the exemption, 60 percent of the total sample favor taxing retirement income above $100,000.

The institute has been asking the “cuts-versus-income-versus-both” budget question since 2009.

From 2011 to 2015, the percentage of voters believing that cuts were the answer to the problem dropped more than 15 percentage points, from 58 percent to 42 percent. That number jumped to 51 percent favoring cuts in the latest poll.

“This is a perplexing phenomenon in Illinois public opinion,” said Charlie Leonard, an Institute visiting professor and one of the directors of the poll. “After more than a decade of cuts to public budgets, people can’t let go of the idea that there is $1.5 billion in waste to cut.

“We have written about this extensively before, but the persistent belief in cutting ‘waste,’ coupled with the inability to agree on solutions, means we’ll probably still be writing about it in the future.”

Illinois comptroller wants halt to payroll 'off-shoring'

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza continued her push Thursday for better accounting of the state's finances, urging legislators to require the governor's office to pay employee salaries from its own budget instead of "off-shoring" the costs to agencies.

Mendoza, who previously convinced lawmakers to mandate better reporting from agencies on overdue bills, announced the new legislation at the Capitol while surrounded by lawmakers — all but one of them Democrats.

"This is a very simple bill," the Democratic comptroller said. "It says if you work in the governor's office, you will be paid from the governor's payroll."

While on paper Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has an office budget of $4.9 million, Mendoza said he's actually spending $10.4 million. The comptroller's staff can decipher the practice known as off-shoring by pay codes which identify account sources.

"You think the governor only has 44 staffers. Wrong. He has 102," Mendoza said. "But 58 of them are off-shored onto other agency payrolls. ... This bad practice is siphoning money from health care, from environmental protection, juvenile justice and public safety."

An August 2015 analysis by The Associated Press found that payroll for all employees reporting to the governor's office at that time was $8 million, but only $4 million of that came out of Rauner's budget.

"When I hear that a governor has a budget that's twice the size of what he says it is while he's advocating for cuts in other program areas, that's problematic," said Rep. Christian Mitchell, a Chicago Democrat who's carrying the measure in the House.

Other media reports about off-shoring in 2015 included one that found that Rauner paid his education adviser $250,000 from the Department of Human Services.

Rauner's spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mendoza, who has feuded with Rauner since she beat his hand-picked comptroller in a special election in 2016, called the "truth-in-hiring" legislation a continuation of the debt transparency act requiring more frequent reporting of bills incurred by agencies. Lawmakers approved it in October over Rauner's veto.

But she and her supporters, including Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat who is the Senate sponsor of the new plan; Chicago Democratic Rep. Greg Harris and GOP Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills, insisted they're not trying to embarrass Rauner. They denounced off-shoring by past governors and pointed out that if their plan becomes law, it would apply to Rauner's successors, Democrat or Republican.

Manar dismissed former governors' arguments that an employee working for the governor but who is paid by the Transportation Department, for example, is working on related issues and that it's all tax money.

"Why are legislators in the appropriating business and why is that in the constitution in the first place?" asked Manar. "If that's how government should be run, we should just appropriate one number to the governor's office and go home. That's not what checks-and-balances is."