March 04, 2022

Union members step up after tornado kills six in Illinois

More than 90 lives were lost when a massive tornado swept through the Midwest on the night of December 10. The victims, ranging in age from two months to 98 years, were from Illinois, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.

The six people killed in Illinois were all working in an Edwardsville Amazon warehouse when approximately 150 yards of the giant structure collapsed.

AFSCME Local 799 members Mary Kate Brown and Matt Bogard of the Madison County Emergency Management Agency were called to the scene to help manage logistics for the rescue effort.

“It was a massive search and rescue effort for 48 hours straight,” Deputy Director of Preparedness Brown said. “We may not be suiting up and digging through the rubble, but we’re right there providing support to the people that are: getting equipment, gathering agencies on site, bringing in lights for the night of searching, providing food and making sure people had a place to shelter from the 30-degree weather.”

The EMA also established a command post that acted as a hub for the fire and police chiefs to develop incident action plans for the first several hours of the disaster, and the days following. They helped provide special equipment like light towers and a drone used to search for people and debris.

“This is the biggest disaster I’ve witnessed in the area,” Logistics Coordinator Bogard said. “I was in the Marines for eight years and saw similar destruction when I was deployed, but you don’t expect to see it in your hometown.”

Elsewhere the storm ripped through a candle factory, destroyed a nursing home, derailed a train, and caused untold damage to homes and businesses. Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation for nearly 30 counties across central and southern Illinois after the weekend’s damage was fully realized.

In Edwardsville, fatalities only occurred at the Amazon warehouse where a tornado formed in the parking lot. “It was amazing to see how huge and thick and tall and heavy these walls were,” Bogard said. “From the time the tornado hit to the time the walls fell was so fast, that’s how powerful tornadoes are.”

Most of the workers were able to get to a storm shelter, but of the seven who sheltered in place in another part of the building, all but one were killed.

OSHA investigates

Only seven of the 190 people who worked at the facility were full-time Amazon employees, raising concerns about the safety of businesses primarily run with contracted workers. Seasonal surges in employees and high turnover make it hard for employers to conduct regular emergency preparedness training. And it was challenging to account for who was missing at the facility because many of the warehouse workers were temporary.

OSHA inspectors who arrived the day after the devastation have six months to complete an investigation into whether Amazon followed workplace safety rules.

Catastrophes like this highlight the need for collective bargaining to establish clear and effective safety protocols.

“This is another outrageous example of the company putting profits over the health and safety of their workers,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “We cannot stand for this.”

United union effort

Every Illinois county has its own Emergency Management Agency. In addition to responding to disasters, AFSCME members in those offices have been integral to the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

When the pandemic started, they organized the distribution of masks, gloves and other protective gear to distribute to the health care providers in the area. Now they provide ongoing support to the health department and run logistics for mass vaccination clinics and testing sites.

That kind of support is critical when crises like the Dec. 10 tornado rock a community. The EMA acts as a coordinating entity among all the agencies and organizations that must work together to get the job done.

“The outpouring of support from emergency services and the community was overwhelming,” Bogard said. “Most, if not all, the workers on site were union and they did a great job: fire, EMS, police, coroner’s office, EMA. We’re all skilled and trained to a certain standard so we can work in unison together. It was an honor to work with the people who were out there.”

“Especially nowadays with all that’s going on in the world, it’s inspiring when everybody can come together for a common purpose for the community and help people as best as we can,” Brown said. “Anybody who goes into public service does it because they want to help people and that’s what we did.”

“It’s something I’m going to remember for a long, long time,” Bogard reflected. “It reminds you how short life is; nothing is certain. So hug your kids a little tighter and appreciate life a little more. Take time off work and spend it with your family when you can.” 

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