Public works may help other cities in disasters

By Crystal Kang

The Urbana Public Works Department proposed an ordinance Monday night that would authorize the city and the Illinois Public Works Mutual Aid Network to execute a mutual aid agreement centered on pooling community resources during man-made and natural catastrophes.

The city council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance at its Nov. 17 meeting.

Public Works Director Bill Gray said Illinois is one of the first states to initiate a statewide mutual aid organization in the public works department. The police and fire departments already offer informal assistance to other communities.

Through this organization, the Urbana Public Works Department would receive and provide community aid in the face of disasters with the understanding that the communities receiving help do not have to reimburse the groups who are helping within the first five days. “There are some communities that don’t have the resources,” said Gray.

The benefits of Urbana agreeing to the terms of the network is that the work forces won’t be exhausted in situations where the city is overwhelmed by a disaster, and there would be a database of community resources and equipment that is available for service.

“The nice thing about it is there have been times when there were floods,” said Assistant Public Works Director Barbara Stiehl. “(The Public Works Department) would be working 12 hours shifts and their work force would be exhausted.”

Stiehl said there are a list of resources from the public works department providing information on how many barricades, engineers, equipment operators and aborists, to name a few, can be called upon if there’s a tornado or other disasters.

The function of the network becomes an important resource when reflecting on past disasters that struck communities in Illinois.

“In 1996, we had a tornado go through Urbana,” said Gray. “In the clean up phase, we had help from the city of Champaign and the Highway Department. A year ago, we sent a crew to Decatur when they had an ice storm.”