When severe weather strikes, being prepared to act quickly could literally be a matter of life and death.
It was just over a year ago that a massive EF-4 tornado ripped through Southern Illinois, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. With that as a reminder, some local schools and agencies have teamed up with the state of Illinois and the National Weather Service to support Severe Weather Preparedness Week.
March through May is usually considered "tornado season" in Illinois. The deadliest tornado in U.S. history took 695 lives on March 18, 1925, as it traveled from Missouri through Illinois and into Indiana before dissipating.
In 1982, an EF-4 tornado ripped a 17-mile path across the city of Marion and Williamson County, claiming 10 lives and injuring more than 200.
While some years are worse than others, weather patterns that develop from the Pacific Ocean and over the western U.S. states play a role in shaping extreme weather. According to U.S. Tornadoes, this year's pattern "generally favors a more active tornado pattern in the Mississippi Valley and the Southeast, while the more classic chase territory of the central and southern Plains could certainly end up quieter than normal."
April has the potential for higher-than-normal tornado activity.
It's hard to predict Mother Nature, but Ryan M. Buckingham, director of Emergency Management for Franklin County, says being prepared is essential.
Buckingham says preparation involves three simple steps: know your risk, take action, and be an example.
Those steps include understanding local hazards and staying informed, developing a family communication plan, having emergency supplies on hand, and sharing your preparedness story with others.
According to Du Quoin District 300 Superintendent Gary Kelly, schools are state mandated to conduct at least three fire drills per year and one severe storm drill. Du Quoin Elementary School conducted a tornado drill last week, while Du Quoin High School will conduct one this week.
"We have reinforced concrete walls in K-8 and reinforced areas in the high school," he said. "We have strapping within our buildings for earthquake stability, which is all part of the design work for the schools."
At Galatia, junior high and high school students share a building. Principal John Cummins said the procedure for a tornado drill was tweaked in recent years.
"Now, we have the students go down into the locker rooms. The junior high students go on one side, with a few of the high school students who have classes on that side of the building," Cummins said.
The locker rooms, which are located in the basement on the east side of the school, have thick, heavy concrete-block walls.
Tuesday morning, after three short rings of the tornado alarm, it was all business as students quickly yet quietly lined up and began moving through the hallways to the gym before gathering in the separate locker rooms.
Other Saline County school districts also participated in the drill. Eldorado High School Superintendent Ryan Hobbs said all schools were participating. In Harrisburg, Superintendent Mike Gauch said most schools were participating, though testing at Harrisburg Middle School might cause that school to opt out.
In Carrier Mills, Superintendent Bryce Jerrell said the grade school was participating, but PSAT testing at the high school would keep that school from participating. The high school already had done its weather drill, he said.
Kelly Urhahn, director of Williamson County Emergency Management, said her county prepares year-round for weather disasters.
"We have multiple curriculum from prekindergarten through middle school," she said. "We do a lot of drills throughout the year and even more so in the spring."
One of the programs WEMA sponsors is the pillowcase project.
"We're the only EMA in the U.S. that does that project," she said.
The project, sponsored by Disney, is aimed at preparing students for disasters. Disney supplies pillowcases for the students.
"The students can decorate them with their name and address," said Urhahn. "They can put things in them that mean something to them in case they are relocated."
The program originally stemmed from Hurricane Katrina.
"The first item that goes in is a whistle that goes on the wrist," she said. "We tell the kids to put it in your safe spot so if you're trapped, you can blow your whistle."
Johnston City Police Chief Will Stark said his department, like others, takes its cue from local emergency responders.
"My officers would help to coordinate rescue efforts," said Stark. "We would be secondary in the immediate response, trying to make sure everything is secure and assisting in rescue efforts."
Once the immediate danger has passed, Stark said law enforcement then has to watch for things like charity fraud.
Stark said law enforcement plays a role with impending weather.
"We're the ones they send out in the squad cars to spot and confirm tornadoes," he said.
Being prepared is a community effort, according to Buckingham.
"Being weather-ready is a collective effort. It takes the whole community to effectively prepare for, protect against, respond to, and recover from the damages caused by tornadoes, thunderstorms and other severe weather."
• Staff writers Travis DeNeal and Pete Spitler contributed to this story.