SPRINGFIELD - The last group of State of Illinois employees who volunteered to help victims of Hurricane Katrina receive social services benefits returned home to Illinois today. For nine days, 75 volunteers staffed three emergency mobile command centers that the Illinois Department of Central Management Services set up 750 miles away -- in Bogalusa, Gonzales and Slidell, La. The centers helped 25,000 evacuees register in the State of Louisiana system to receive emergency food stamps, unemployment benefits, temporary housing and other assistance. All totaled, about 130 state employees representing more than a dozen agencies assisted Hurricane Katrina victims in the Gulf Coast region.
“Illinois state employees took their skills to where they were needed most – to the heart of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath. Working in the mobile command centers in Louisiana, our state employees helped victims of the hurricane get the food, housing, and health care they desperately needed. In addition to our state employees, law enforcers, fire fighters, and other volunteers who put their own lives on hold to help others, we also opened our doors at home in Illinois to more than 6,000 victims displaced by the storm. We should all be extremely proud of these efforts, both at home and in the Gulf Coast region,” said Gov. Blagojevich.
Illinois’ volunteers helped many families – including a family of four living in a Dodge pick-up truck – in a variety of ways: by locating emergency shelter, contacting FEMA, and collecting, contributing and donating money, among other actions. Their efforts led a number of Louisianans, including Detective Mike Provenzano of the Bogalusa Police Department, to call them “angels”. Det. Provenzano’s parting words to volunteer Floyd Schleyhahn were, “If you guys in Illinois ever find yourself in the position we’re in now, I’m coming – and I’m bringing everybody that I can find.”
The State of Illinois has been actively assisting hurricane relief efforts in Illinois and throughout the Gulf Coast. As one initiative in that effort, CMS’ Bureau of Communication and Computer Services (BCCS) last week created three emergency mobile command posts. More than 25 BCCS technicians volunteered to set up the command centers, which consist of computers powered by mobile generators and equipped with hard-to-find satellite uplink capabilities. Using broadband services, including high-speed data transmission to remote areas underserved by local carriers, BCCS can provide relief command centers with uplinks for phone and internet access, and also links to shelters so displaced individuals can call loved ones.
More than 500 employees from various State of Illinois agencies offered to staff the makeshift BCCS command posts to help displaced residents in Louisiana access assistance and sign up for social services provided by their state. Of those 500, 75 were chosen, said goodbye to their families, packed up their gear and received tetanus and hepatitis immunizations, before riding the 750 miles from Springfield to Louisiana on Sunday, Sept. 11. The next day they began providing data entry on the generator-powered computers to catalog and route social services information for thousands of evacuees in the state of Louisiana. By the time the last mobile command center closed up shop in Slidell, La. late yesterday, they had processed more than 25,000 people for benefits.
“State of Illinois employees responded in overwhelming numbers to our call for help, and our volunteers set a tremendously inspiring example by working in rough conditions to provide Hurricane Katrina’s victims access to the services they need to rebuild their lives,” said Paul Campbell, Acting Director of CMS. “They represent a great number of state employees who’ve taken on added responsibilities, put in long hours and otherwise gone well beyond the call of duty to help our fellow Americans.”
When off-duty, the volunteers stayed in makeshift camps at a high school, a shelter and a water-treatment plant. CMS provided meals, bottled water, cots and bedrolls and portable toilets.
According to officials with the Emergency Management Assistance Compact which is coordinating all Gulf States’ requests for personnel and equipment, nearly all fifty states have sent volunteers to Louisiana and Mississippi, totaling more than 41,000 people. Illinois sent nearly 2,100 – about five percent of the total volunteers sent by states.
Other Illinois groups that have returned from the Gulf Coast include: 150 law enforcement officers; 52 Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team (IMERT) doctors, nurses and paramedics, who manned a field hospital in Baton Rouge; an 11-member Incident Management Team (IMT) comprised of two Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) employees and nine local emergency management officials that was directing emergency management efforts for a six-county area around Gulfport, Mississippi; and an environmental strike team consisting of personnel from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Public Health, which assisted with drinking water and food safety issues.
The 800 Illinois National Guard troops that were deployed earlier this month will remain in Louisiana through the end of September.
Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, Gov. Blagojevich ordered all state agencies to respond in a coordinated manner to help recovery and cleanup efforts in the Gulf Coast, and victims coming into Illinois:
- Arriving on four flights arranged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Illinois has received more than 430 displaced victims from the Gulf Coast states. Individuals and families, upon arrival received immediate medical care and were provided housing from the state in Tinley Park, Elgin, Alton and Rockford. The American Red Cross estimates an additional 6,000 displaced victims arrived in Illinois by their own means.
- The Governor launched a Hurricane Katrina Victim Assistance Hotline (800-843-6154) to offer a broad range of services to the thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims who made their own way to Illinois, as well as the individuals, community organizations and local governments that have taken them in. The hotline connects displaced victims to services available to them, ranging from housing assistance to medical care to employment. The Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) is coordinating the hotline. Hotline hours of operation are between 9am and midnight daily. Callers have one-stop access to all of the State of Illinois’ resources for Katrina victims – from emergency food and shelter to more long-term assistance like unemployment benefits and food stamps. Callers can also be connected to local and federal resources.
- Gov. Blagojevich deployed more than 2,000 Illinoisans to help Louisiana respond to the devastation resulting from Hurricane Katrina. The deployments include nearly 600 firefighters and 800 National Guard troops.
- The Illinois Department of Employment Security is helping displaced victims process unemployment claims and facilitating job searches and job training. IDES and Central Management Services employees have set up remote computer stations in the state facilities in Tinley Park, Alton, Elgin and Rockford, where evacuees are being provided housing.
- The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation has reached out to state-chartered banks and thrifts and asked them to provide free check cashing, eliminate ATM service fees and help establish checking and saving accounts for displaced victims now residing in Illinois.
- The Illinois Department of Revenue has extended filing deadlines to taxpayers from counties damaged by Hurricane Katrina and who owe Illinois taxes, until October 31, 2005.
- A total of 134 highly trained law enforcement officers from state and local agencies were deployed to Louisiana. These include Weapons of Mass Destruction teams, Tactical Response teams, Underwater Dive teams, a mobile command post, various all terrain vehicles, boats and trucks.
- The Illinois Department of Transportation contributed 500 yards of fencing and 500 stakes on two lowboys pulled by two semis that will be in the law enforcement convoy.
- The Governor dispatched a total of 52 members of the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Teams (IMERT) to Louisiana to assist with care of the massive number of sick and injured victims from Hurricane Katrina, and dispatched an 11-member Incident Management Team to George County, Mississippi to assist local emergency managers during the crisis.
- The Governor ordered the state’s public schools to waive residency requirements and enroll any child displaced by Hurricane Katrina who relocates to live with family, friends or in a shelter in Illinois. To date, more than 400 children displaced by Hurricane Katrina are enrolled in 46 different Illinois school districts.
- The state’s 39 community colleges will accommodate any Illinois resident displaced from higher education studies because of the hurricane, while Illinois’ 12 public universities will also take in students affected by the destruction along the Gulf Coast. Students are encouraged to contact admissions offices at each university to being an expedited process to enroll in the institution and to access university services like financial aid.
- The Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency have offered free camping and removed length of stay requirements for Hurricane victims at all state parks and historic sites that offer camping.
- The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) waived certain transportation rules to allow standard-sized semis carrying supplies and materials to Louisiana to be overweight by up to 15,000 pounds when they travel on Illinois roads. Currently, a standard-sized semi is only allowed to weigh 80,000 pounds when traveling through Illinois. IDOT will also grant emergency permits to companies that need to move oversized equipment to the impacted area.
- The Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) made available various items through IEMA’s emergency procurement system including 256,000 half pints of water, 8,500 blankets, 18,300 clothing items, and 2,900 dozen packages of cleaning supplies. IDOC has also delivered 3,000 bedrolls to the Red Cross in Hillside.
- The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs sent toiletries and food to facilities where displaced victims have been housed, and in collaboration with several other federal and private agencies will send food to the Gulf Coast states.
- The Department of Central Management Services made available its Bureau of Communication and Computer Services (BCCS) to help provide communications assistance to devastated areas. Using broadband services, including high speed data transmission to remote areas underserved by local carriers, BCCS can provide relief command centers with uplinks for phone and internet access, and also links to shelters so displaced individuals can call loved ones.
- The Department of Human Services sent staff skilled in processing Food Stamps, to help the United States Department of Agriculture implement a Disaster Food Stamp program in 25 Louisiana counties.
- The Illinois Department of Agriculture made available to the Illinois State Police the Expo Building on the Illinois State Fairgrounds as a staging area to consolidate personnel, equipment and supplies in preparation for deployment.
- The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) dispatched twelve specialists to Louisiana. The specialists are members of four environmental health strike teams being sent by the state at the request of the Louisiana Emergency Management Agency. Their expertise includes drinking water, sewage, food safety and food salvage. In addition, two IEPA trucks stocked with emergency response equipment and two IDPH vehicles were deployed.