Quad City conference examines disaster responses

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As a tornado tore apart Washington, Illinois, first responders faced more than initial chaos.

"We didn't know where we were," said Troy Erbentraut, disaster preparedness manager for the response team in Washington.

They were literally disoriented by destruction.

"Streets that you should know had no marks," he recalled. "As fast as we could, we used GPS and spray-painted all the roads."

A typical Monday in Le Claire turned terrifying.

That's as the Coast Guard responded to a sinking tug. It had thousands of gallons of diesel fuel.

"How much is on board?" Lt. Kody Stitz remembers asking. "How are we going to get it safely off the vessel so it's no longer a threat to the environment?"

Both responders shared their stories at the Quad Cities Disaster Readiness Conference in Bettendorf on Wednesday. Scott and Rock Island counties joined forces for the session.

The first-time event showcased lessons from the past to help others prepare for the unexpected.

That included a presentation on how social media shaped responses in the aftermath of a devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri in 2011.

From the river to the land, emergency responses are more important than ever. That's why being prepared is so crucial.

In the Washington tornado aftermath, there are lessons about volunteering at the right time.

"There's a ton of people that want to help, and that's great," Erbentraut continued. "But the more people there, the more burden on the system it is."

From 17 days on the successful tugboat case, there are lessons about making contacts and coordination.

"To have a network of people in place before an accident occurs," Lt. Stitz advised. "You never want to show up at an accident scene and be meeting people for the first time."

That's a takeaway to turn chaos into communication.