SPRINGFIELD-The Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service presented the 2017 Governor’s Hometown Awards during a special reception at the Old State Capitol Nov. 8.
SPRINGFIELD-The Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service presented the 2017 Governor’s Hometown Awards during a special reception at the Old State Capitol Nov. 8. The awards program gives formal recognition to communities, organizations and programs that contribute to their community’s quality of life via projects that have strong volunteer support, meet a need, and made a definitive impact. Fulton County was a recipient of a 2017 Governor’s Hometown Award for its collective response to the devastating natural gas explosion that occurred in Canton, Nov. 16, 2016. Representatives from the honored communities receive a plaque, and a road sign designating it as a Governor’s Hometown Award winner.
Commission Executive Director Scott McFarland noted in his remarks that, “through the preliminary round of judging, 14 localities have been recognized as either cup finalists or project winners of the program.” The Commission selected Fulton County as a project winner in its population division for the swift and collaborative response to the explosion last November that caused one fatality, numerous injuries and major damage to downtown businesses.
“Fulton County Board Chairman Bob Bucher, and myself submitted this application on behalf of the entities and agencies that came together during the downtown gas explosion,” said Chris Helle, director of the Fulton County Emergency Services Disaster Agency. “This was really a global effort on behalf of responders from the City of Canton, Fulton County and the State of Illinois. Every agency came together and responded to the incident, versus reacting to the incident, and I think that was the key to our success.”
A massive response from volunteers and organizations in the community and county aided recovery efforts both during the incident and in the aftermath. Within minutes, now-retired Canton Police Chief Nichols established a command post at the City Building. Katie Lynn of the Fulton County Health Department coordinated a Public Information Office to help provide accurate information to the local, regional and national press, and to the public quickly. Residential information hotlines and business hotlines were set up quickly to keep citizens and
Fulton County Sheriff Jeff Standard and troopers from Illinois State Police District 14 out of Macomb set perimeters and secured the scene. Fulton County Emergency Medical Association established a triage area quickly and were prepared to load patients for a mass casualty incident. The Salvation Army, under the leadership of Lt. Sarah Eddy, began assisting first responders and those affected by the disaster within minutes, and helped to coordinate volunteers.
Because so many businesses and buildings in the downtown area were damaged or affected in some way by the explosion, it was essential to establish a liaison between the business and building owners. Amanda Atchley, Executive Director of the Canton Area Chamber of Commerce, stepped into that role and took on the overwhelming task of coordinating daily briefings, inspections of damaged property for life/safety issues, and working with business and building owners to be cleared to re-enter the property once it had received approval by structural engineers. Missy Towery, the Executive Director of the Spoon River Partnership, was instrumental in creating a Canton Disaster Recovery Fund that helped to fund repairs, window replacement, deductibles and other needs for affected businesses. The fund raised more than $134,000.
Atchley said even though the disaster was extremely difficult to get through, the generosity of volunteers and organizations was hard to describe. “Restaurants like Official Time Out and Bistro 101, who didn’t even have power, Hy-Vee, and so many others who brought food to the scene and assisted in so many ways, they made a difference. People who helped sweep up glass and debris in damaged businesses, and just helped in any way they could, it raised spirits and made it easier to deal with the devastation.”
That sense of pride and determinations was no more evident than when Canton Main Street made the decision to hold the annual Old Fashioned Christmas Walk Dec. 2, just two weeks after the explosion. Armed with plastic sheeting, staple guns, and felt Christmas cut-outs, over 50 volunteers met in Jones Park and “upholstered” the hundreds of boarded up windows in the downtown area with holiday colors and decorations. The event was one of the most well-attended in the Christmas Walk’s history.
“It was the complete willingness and determination of so many responders, agencies, organizations and volunteers to work together to get things done, to make things happen, literally overnight, that helped us survive this explosion in the way that we did,” says Helle. “I was proud to be a part of putting that pride and effort before the Serve Illinois Commission. I’m very pleased that they felt it worthy of recognition.”