Twisters ripped through central Illinois around 11 a.m. on Nov. 17, flattening homes and knocking out power.
Republican Rep. Aaron Schock, who lives in nearby Peoria, Ill., heard the news of the destruction from his church pew. He left Sunday services and quickly headed down the road to Washington, Ill., where his constituents were emerging from the basements of their homes to a world in disarray.
Meanwhile, the phones in Schock’s Washington, D.C., office began ringing.
“My executive assistant, my deputy chief of staff and the legislative aide, who’s from the Peoria area, all were in my office on Sunday just working when the phone began ringing,” Schock said in an interview.
“People were calling trying to get in touch with their loved ones because the power was out and there were a lot of senior citizens affected that did not have cellphones. Folks from Seattle to Ohio were calling the office trying to seek our help in putting them in touch with their loved ones who were affected.”
For the staffers employed in Schock’s central Illinois district, the workload was different. On the ground in communities devastated by the tornado, they helped people connect those in need of clothing or food with the Red Cross. They found apartment buildings and hotels for people who needed a roof over their heads.
“The district office really got into the full swing with helping with the day-to-day needs,” Schock said, “and the D.C. office not as much.”
While district staffers frequently find themselves on the front lines when Mother Nature rocks their constituencies, the involvement of staffers here on Capitol Hill varies. In October, for instance, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall declared his D.C. staff essential during the federal government shutdown so they could focus on helping his Colorado constituency with flood recovery. The Illinois tornado provides the latest case study in how natural disasters back home impact Hill life.
Calls to Schock’s Cannon office slowed down after Sunday, so staffers largely returned to their regular schedules, with the exception of twice-daily status updates from the Peoria district director. She phoned in with information on the location of emergency housing and new donation collection points, plus any upcoming fundraisers or telethons. The D.C. staff helped spread the work.
Randy Pollard, downstate director for Sen. Mark S. Kirk’s staff, spent the days following the Sunday tornado living out of his car, as he traversed the disaster zone from Washington to Brookport, Ill. He talked to locals, then briefed legislative staff back in D.C. on recovery efforts, according to Kirk’s office.
While Pollard spent much of his time behind the wheel and on the ground with constituents, Kirk’s Chicago office staff and the team in D.C. sat in on conference calls with officials from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and local leaders.
Ultimately, it will be D.C.’s job to secure financial disaster assistance for tornado victims, explained Kirk spokesman Lance Trover. First-hand accounts will eventually be used to fight for federal funding from Congress.
Freshman Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., learned some lessons about disaster relief in April, when excessive rainfall led to widespread floods that saturated parts of her western Illinois district. A list of Red Cross shelters and county resources compiled this spring, titled “Help for Illinois Storm Victims,” was retooled for the current disaster then shared by her staff via Bustos’ Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Bustos was at home in East Moline when this month’s storms hit, about 100 miles northwest of the worst damage. The twisters destroyed the homes of about 75 of her Pekin, Ill., constituents.
The lone staffer in Bustos’ Peoria office pushed aside his planned to-do list to focus almost exclusively on tornado recovery, tracking down phone numbers and contact information for local people in need.
“Our D.C. office doesn’t always necessarily feel the impact of natural disasters back in the District, just because people are probably more likely to call their local office,” said Bustos spokesman Colin Milligan.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has a designated D.C. staffer who coordinates the gathering and dissemination of information during disasters. In coordination with his state director and chief of staff, the trio coordinates ground response and outreach efforts to local leaders. He’s also got a press team blasting out useful information via Twitter, Facebook and releases.
Durbin arrived on the Senate floor Monday with photo displays of rubble and debris on the mangled landscape.
“The extent of the damage is breathtaking,” he said, commending first responders on their quick work in the aftermath. “I’m confident the state will need federal assistance to help with cleanup and recovery and I stand ready, along with Senator Kirk, to ensure there’s federal assistance to augment the arduous but critical recovery work that the municipalities and the state already have begun.”