On April 9, 2015, an “F-4” tornado struck rural Ogle and DeKalb Counties and the unincorporated town of Fairdale, Ill. Of the 66 homes in Fairdale, 21 were obliterated, 15 suffered major structural damage and were deemed uninhabitable, and 14 others had significant damage.
My land surveying company is located in DeKalb County and I was familiar with Fairdale as I had performed previous surveys there. It is an old community that was first platted in 1875 and was expanded over the next four years. The 1892 DeKalb County Plat book shows 50 homes, three businesses, a church, school, depot and grain elevator. Not much had changed since 1892 except that the former businesses and church had been converted into residences.
With a few exceptions, the homes had either stone foundations or were built on concrete slabs. All the homes had wells and septic systems. There was no natural gas main, so all the homes had either propane furnaces or electric heat. Rebuilding Fairdale was not going to be as simple as reconstructing homes on existing foundations.
To complicate matters, the existing zoning ordinance for the unincorporated areas of DeKalb County required that to rebuild a destroyed home, the residence had to be on a 40-acre parcel with only one residence per parcel. The average parcel in Fairdale was less than 10,000 square feet.
Helping to Rebuild
Aware of all this, I knew that my experience as a surveyor would be something I could offer to help Fairdale rebuild. On Monday, April 13, I contacted the county planner to offer the services of my company. I later received a call from the county emergency services director saying they would welcome the help, but that it would have to wait until most of the clean-up was completed.
The Northeast Chapter of the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association (IPLSA) had a scheduled meeting that Wednesday. I presented a proposal that, as a chapter, we should re-survey the affected area of Fairdale. This would help residents find their property since any landmarks — houses, fences or trees — were now gone. Their response was overwhelmingly positive.
By that Friday, I had 18 Professional Land Surveyor (PLS) and Surveyor-In-Training (SIT) volunteers for field work. I had also contacted Cory Allred, the land surveying instructor for nearby Northern Illinois University (NIU). We believed this would be an excellent experience for the surveying students.
On Saturday, April 18, I met with residents to explain the services we would provide. The resiliency of these people was very impressive.
Because of all of the available talent, we decided to expand the scope of services we would provide. The whole town and adjacent affected parcels could now be monumented and topography provided for future site plans.
Over the following two weeks, we planned for our survey party in Fairdale. The DeKalb County Assessor’s Office provided legal descriptions and maps. Duane Weiss and Hans Distlehorst from the Sangamon Valley Chapter IPLSA provided control monuments with state plane coordinates so we could hit the ground running. These control points proved to be invaluable for a multitude of projects since.
Entering the Affected Area
Finally, on May 2, we were permitted to enter the tornado-ravaged areas. Pictures of communities wiped out by hurricanes and tornadoes can never convey the feeling of loss in quite the same way as standing in the middle of the disaster site.
The first Saturday of our survey, we divided into six crews. Each crew was responsible for a different area for both boundary surveying and topography. There were few survey markers found, and none we could consider original.
I analyzed the boundary data and spent most of my free time for the following week determining property corner locations. The following Saturday, we had four survey crews available to set all of the missing corners and complete the topographical survey. All of the field work, compilations of data and analysis were donated, totaling approximately 300 man hours (drafting plats was an additional matter).
No Disaster Aid
Early in the recovery process it became evident that the Fairdale area disaster would not reach the FEMA threshold for federal assistance (about $18 million for Illinois) and there was no statewide disaster recovery fund. A steering committee of interested agencies and individuals was formed to plan for the recovery of the affected residents. Bill Nicklas, a local citizen who had been very active in the DeKalb County area for many years, was chosen to head the group. This all-volunteer organization was called the DeKalb County Long Term Recovery Corporation (LTRC). It was with the LTRC that I had most of my contact for providing surveying and mapping services.
A member of the county board who had recently been elected to represent the affected area was also a civil engineer in private practice. Kevin Bunge is owner of CES Inc., located in Belvidere, Ill. The combination of these two positions and being a volunteer member of the LRTC board would mean that Bunge would be extremely busy for the next few months.
Rezoning the Area
One of the first projects I worked on after the field survey work was completed was providing assistance and legal descriptions for the rezoning of Fairdale to a private urban development (PUD). Before any building permits could be issued, the PUD ordinance had to be approved by the full county board. This included public notification and public hearings. The whole process was completed by July 1, 2015.
As soon as it was apparent that the PUD was going to be approved, requests for “Plat of Surveys” showing proposed building locations arrived at my office. One of the first was for Irene Clay. Mrs. Clay had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and it was her wish that she live her final days in her home in Fairdale. Despite all the efforts of the community, she passed away a week before the new home was completed.
Another project that was in the works was a new collection sewer system to connect the new and rebuilt homes with a new community seepage field. The design of the system was donated by CES Inc. and utilized both the boundary data and topography that the IPLSA obtained back in May. Because the information was already available, no time was wasted seeking bids and providing field work.
The land needed for the seepage field was purchased by LTRC with Hanna Surveyors providing the survey and staking corners. At the time the corners were staked, the corn in that field was over 8 feet high. Thanks to GPS technology, we could efficiently mark the property lines while not disturbing the existing crops on the adjacent field.
When the collection sewer pipes were installed, the control monuments set at the start of the surveying project proved to be an integral part of the project. Sewer pipe, manholes and services with proper grades could be set from computer generated control. This also kept the installation costs to a minimum.
A natural gas pipeline was extended to Fairdale and mains were installed. The location of services were determined by the survey markers set at all the lot corners.
The town is now serviced with a community Wi-Fi tower. There were various easements required that were prepared and marked in the field utilizing the boundary information.
When contacted in December, Nicklas stated that, “since rebuilding started, rarely a day goes by that the survey work provided [by IPLSA] is not utilized.”
Not all disasters have the need for all the surveying services required in Fairdale, but most need some. By getting involved early, surveyor associations can provide valuable information and services to affected areas. This can solidify our position as the noble profession we know we are.