SPRINGFIELD — For almost three years, Jonathon Monken has been in charge of the cleanup whenever Illinois gets flooded, ravaged by tornadoes or frozen by a polar vortex.
Head of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency and one of Gov. Pat Quinn’s longest-serving appointees, Monken said that each crisis poses its own challenge.
“Within each disaster, there’s really kind of a rock-bottom point,” he said. “There’s always a point where there are so many of these circumstances that you can’t control.”
Monken said he learned to stay calm in these situations while serving in the military from 2002 to 2007.
“Being able to function in an environment where circumstances are at their worst is very fundamental to combat experience,” he said. “But in each one of these disasters we’ve had since I’ve been here, I could point to a specific moment where you look at it and say, ‘OK. This is the spot where we’re at that rock-bottom point.’“
In the recent winter storm that brought bitter cold to much of Illinois, Monken found rock bottom on the road.
“We had 400 cars jammed up on I-57 and 70, and we’re looking at a situation where you have multiple semis jack-knifed on the roads, and the plows can’t get through because the semis are in the way,” he said. “There are no tow trucks available through private contract anymore because all of their tow trucks are out because they’re either stuck or broken down.
“And you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, ‘How are we going to get these people out of their cars? It’s 30 below zero. We’ve gotta get them out. They’re gonna run out of gas. They’re not going to be able to run their heaters. What are we going to do?’“
In that instance, the agency was able to get assistance from a National Guard facility several miles away, but Monken said the crisis points always stick with him.
“Those are the moments when you’re looking at it and you’re trying to find a solution to a very real problem,” he said. “Not an academic problem, not a theoretical problem, but a we-don’t-want-hundreds-of-people-freezing-to-death-on-the-highway problem.”
Only a few years ago, Monken was slated to handle some very different problems for the state.
In March of 2009, Quinn appointed a 29-year-old Monken to head up the Illinois State Police. With no formal police training, Monken faced vocal opposition from state senators who refused to confirm his appointment.
After almost two years without Senate approval, Monken resigned the position in February 2011 and was immediately appointed to take over the emergency management agency.
Former state senator and police chief John Millner opposed Monken’s appointment to the state police position but supported him for the IEMA directorship. He said it was the right call.
“He got two years of experience at the state police,” Millner said. “He learned a lot in those two years, He learned a lot about state government and about leadership in the state of Illinois.
“Sometimes he makes decisions that are difficult to make. Sometimes people don’t like them, but he’s able to do what it takes to lead the emergency management agency,” said Millner, who is now a lobbyist.
So instead of dealing with criminals, Monken handles tornadoes now.
“In tornadoes you get that same kind of helpless feeling,” he said. “It’s watching the aftermath of a thousand homes being annihilated.”
The sheer scale of destruction of the tornadoes that hit Washington, Brookport and Unionville on Nov. 17 made handling the situation extremely difficult, Monken explained.
“The magnitude of what we saw that day certainly exceeded anything we could have predicted,” he said. “It was by far the most tornadoes we’ve ever had in a single day. It was 25 confirmed tornadoes in the span of three and a half hours.
“Prior to that, we had never had an EF-4 tornado in the month of November in Illinois. We had two that day. Two EF-4s, three F-3s. Very powerful tornadoes. So it was a very difficult set of circumstances, and the hardest part was that it was all over the state.”
But after some of the worst had passed, the tornadoes kept coming.
“The Washington tornado happens first, and now we’re sitting here, watching our radar on the board, and we realize that we’re not even out of this thing yet,” Monken said. “We’re responding to one and the next one is coming.
“You walk out onto the scene a few hours later, and you have to ask yourself where to start, where to finish.”
Despite the job’s low points, Monken said there’s enough good to keep him going for the foreseeable future.
“Just like it’s a rock-bottom moment when you realize that there’s 400 cars trapped with hundreds of people that you don’t want to freeze to death,” he said, “By about 4:15 in the morning when we’ve got all those roads open and we know everybody’s safe, that’s a pretty good feeling. You don’t have to look back on the day and wonder if you did anything that was actually important or relevant or that mattered. You’ve got your answer.
“I don’t see that day coming particularly soon where I say I can’t do it anymore, but never say never. You can’t know what the circumstances for tomorrow are.”