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10 ways to improve tornado response

10 ways to improve tornado response

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  • Piles of residential debris (pictured in June 2011) in Joplin, Mo., sit in the right of way awaiting collection during Expedited Debris Removal. The city was struck by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

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    Piles of residential debris (pictured in June 2011) in Joplin, Mo., sit in the right of way awaiting collection during Expedited Debris Removal. The city was struck by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

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    Suzanne Everson/FEMA

    Piles of residential debris (pictured in June 2011) in Joplin, Mo., sit in the right of way awaiting collection during Expedited Debris Removal. The city was struck by an EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

  • Tuscaloosa County in Alabama was able to get a functioning Emergency Management Agency (EMA) with help from the Mobile Emergency Response Support. The previous EMA was destroyed in the April 27, 2011, tornado.

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    Tuscaloosa County in Alabama was able to get a functioning Emergency Management Agency (EMA) with help from the Mobile Emergency Response Support. The previous EMA was destroyed in the April 27, 2011, tornado.

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    Tim Burkitt/ FEMA

    Tuscaloosa County in Alabama was able to get a functioning Emergency Management Agency (EMA) with help from the Mobile Emergency Response Support. The previous EMA was destroyed in the April 27, 2011, tornado.

  • Police officers Jeff Dutton and Mohanead Tabia survey damage in Moored, Okla.

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    Police officers Jeff Dutton and Mohanead Tabia survey damage in Moored, Okla.

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    Andrea Booher/FEMA

    Police officers Jeff Dutton and Mohanead Tabia survey damage in Moored, Okla.

  • The Debris Task Force conducts an assessment after an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo.

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    The Debris Task Force conducts an assessment after an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo.

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    Elissa Jun/FEMA

    The Debris Task Force conducts an assessment after an EF-5 tornado struck Joplin, Mo.

  • Debris Removal Continues in Tornado Ravaged Community

    Volunteer crews help local residents with debris removal on private property in Moore, Okla. Cleanup continues throughout areas that were impacted by the May 20, 2013, tornado.

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    Volunteer crews help local residents with debris removal on private property in Moore, Okla. Cleanup continues throughout areas that were impacted by the May 20, 2013, tornado.

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    Jocelyn Augustino/ FEMA

    Volunteer crews help local residents with debris removal on private property in Moore, Okla. Cleanup continues throughout areas that were impacted by the May 20, 2013, tornado.

Editor’s note: If you think the 800 tornadoes that hit the U.S. every year are confined to rural areas, guess again.Cities in five regions are most prone: the Midwest (Indianapolis), the Plains (Oklahoma City), Gulf Coast and Mid-South (New Orleans), Southeast of Appalachia (Atlanta), and other (Clearwater, Fla.). But a tornado can strike anywhere, anytime. New York City was hit three times in 2010. Here is advice from those who lived through them.

1. Hash out response with police and fire beforehand

“In many communities, public works still isn’t engaging with emergency management and response planning,” says Ken Hill of the Tulsa, Okla., Department of Public Works and an instructor at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Emergency Management Institute.

“You have to spend time thinking about this,” says Kurt Blomquist, public works director for the City of Keene, N.H., and chairman of the American Public Works Association’s (APWA) Emergency Management Committee. “Disaster response is a collective decision-making process. There are so many demands for resources and you need to decide where they’re going to go.”

Blomquist, who’s been through five federal disasters, uses “coffee cup conversations” to get the discussion going.

“It’s going to Dunkin’ Donuts, knowing the fire or police chief has two creams and two sugars, and showing up at his or her office asking, ‘There was a tornado in the town next door. What would we do it if happened here?’” he says. “Every community is different, so look at critical facilities. Identify where things like hospitals and nursing homes are because they’re a priority.”

2. Mobile tire repair stations

“You’ll have screws, nails, and roofing tacks all over,” says David Hartin, a retired police officer who is now emergency management director for the City of Tuscaloosa, Ala., which suffered an EF-4 tornado in April 2011. “Rescue trucks going back and forth to the hospital will pick them up.”

Assess the number of repair kits your community typically has on hand. If the task is usually contracted out, factor that into emergency planning.

Plan to set up mobile repair stations at the hospital and along major roads. “As patients are being offloaded at the hospital, someone can be repairing the tire,” Hartin says. “We set up stations at shops but also at satellite places just to handle the repairs.”

Don’t forget to have gas-powered air compressors available in case the power goes out.

3. Maintaining communications

Demolished cell towers and downed telephone lines make it impossible to communicate with co-workers, much less first-responder agencies and the public.

“Have spare equipment to put online quickly,” says Michael Sutherland, public works director for the Town of Parker, Colo., and member of APWA’s Emergency Management Committee and Mitigation Subcommittee.

Tuscaloosa, Ala., used Southern Link, a “push-to-talk” radio network that uses a cellular phone tower. When that wasn’t available, e-mail worked well. “It takes less bandwidth, so sometimes it went through when a phone call didn’t. And then there are plain old analog radios.”

If all else fails, national radio frequencies are available. First responders from outside the disaster area won’t have local frequencies programmed into their radios. When that happens, both visiting emergency managers and local officials can switch over to mutual aid frequencies. Make sure your communications plan indicates the frequencies on which you’ll be operating.

Mass notification systems are very useful for notifying the public before, during, and after a tornado, says Bill Robison, hazard mitigation director for Tulsa, Okla. The city’s system can notify residents 15 ways, including home phone, cell phone, text, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

4. Back up your data

“Ask yourself what you’d need if your office was destroyed,” says Tuscaloosa’s Hartin. “Where could you get employee rosters?”

Tuscaloosa’s administrative building was destroyed by an EF-4 tornado in 2011. If important records had not been backed up to a hard drive locked in the safe of a municipal building 10 miles away, they would have been lost. “The fire-suppression system broke when the top was taken off the building, so we had 4- to 6-inch lines pushing water into the area,” Hartin says. “It flooded everything.”

That’s why, he says, “An iPhone, Blackberry or tablet—something with all of your numbers in it—is essential.”

He always carries a spare charger as well as a USB drive with critical plans, forms, and maps. If the office loses power, Hartin can set up rudimentary operations somewhere else. “It might just be plugging the laptop into an inverter in a vehicle or a generator," he says.

ArcGIS maps become particularly important because overlays show different information that can be used. “If you’re in an area and you want to identify the property owner, the overlay with the county database can be used and you have the information in the palm of your hands,” Hartin says.