Severe Weather: Storm preparation is serious business

single-meta-cal March 27, 2017

Huntsville residents are no strangers to severe storms – particularly high winds and devastating tornados. This is the first in a series of articles on how City agencies prepare for severe weather as we enter peak season for storms.

The handout given to each participant features a stark photo on a stormy gray background. It is a field of debris where houses once stood, guarded by trees now stripped of leaves and limbs.

“Disaster – not a matter of if … but when!” reads a headline on the cover.

It’s as accurate a statement as it is sobering. It’s a reality that violent weather, often in the form of tornadoes, can strike with great devastation, with loss of life and property.

The arrival of spring signals the arrival of the tornado season. According to the National Weather Service, Alabama has been struck by 474 tornadoes in the month of April since 1950, almost twice as many as in any other month.

Preparing for serious storms is serious business. Thus, on an appropriately rainy and gray day, the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency recently hosted a Severe Weather Tabletop Exercise, bringing together some 80 participants from 30 organizations. They represented groups that would be involved in disaster response or that would be acutely affected by disaster, such as schools and hospitals.

“It’s a lot of planning, but it will pay off in case of an emergency.”

“Nine out of ten times when we have severe weather warnings, it turns out OK,” Scott Worsham, an Emergency Management Officer for the agency, told the participants. “It’s that tenth time that we’re here for today.”

Worsham headed an eight-man Exercise Design Team that created a fictional scenario — a mid-morning tornado, covering a 10-mile diagonal path that stretched like a deadly sash from the southwest corner of the county, from the airport area, through Madison and to the northern part of Huntsville.

“We wanted to prompt discussion on what we would do, to say, ‘This is what we need to be thinking about,’” Worsham said.

Near the front of the fifth-floor conference room at Adtran was the City of Huntsville’s “team.” Huntsville Police Department, Huntsville Fire & Rescue, Traffic Engineering, Transportation, Geographic Information, and Communications were represented.

Huddled around tables elsewhere were participants from Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency, Huntsville-Madison County Rescue Squad, City of Madison, Madison County Sheriff’s Department, Alabama State Troopers, National Weather Service, Red Cross and local hospitals, local schools and businesses.

A National Weather Service representative read an ominous, day-before forecast to the group about the potential for severe weather, including the chance of tornadoes. The EMA was prompted to open its Emergency Operations Center to hold a briefing for all the key principals.

Thus, the exercise was set into motion. Huntsville Fire and Rescue Chief Steve Britton went around the table, asking each participant to imagine what he or she would be doing on that day-before in preparation.

The same discussion was buzzing at every table, with myriad answers. School closings would be announced. Off-duty employees would be contacted and put on call. Fuel for generators would be checked. Auxiliary departments that might provide support service would be reached. School bus fleets would be moved to three separate locations instead of a central lot.

Sure enough, as the exercise took another step, the next day arrived with a tornado watch issued at 8:58 a.m. It was followed by reports of high winds and storm damage near the airport, trees and powerlines down. Then, a tornado touchdown in the western part of the county. It caused great damage at homes, businesses and healthcare facilities. Numerous reports of injuries, with potential fatalities, were reported. Some victims were trapped.

So, what to do next?

It was time to put into place all the planning and to exercise effective communication and collaboration.

A key component was to establish a Unified Command Structure, and to do so Worsham “drafted” a leader from each of the tables to huddle in the rear of the meeting room.

The structure, both in the simulation and in the real world, brings together people in positions of authority from the key response agencies to one location to facilitate communications and decision making. Huntsville Fire & Rescue would take the lead role in a tornado disaster affecting the city, but a multi-jurisdictional situation involves “a true team effort,” as Worsham said.

The Unified Command Structure would be in constant connection with the Emergency Operations Center in downtown Huntsville, as well as with individuals at various command posts and those who were able to hit the streets after the severe weather passed.

“It’s a lot of planning,” Worsham assured the participants. “But it will pay off in case of an emergency.”