Monday, May 30, 2011

The Joplin Tornado

“It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve done this, it just rips your heart out when you stand and watch a family member waiting for their loved ones to be recovered from an environment like this.”
- Doug Westhoff (rescuer at Joplin tornado site)

At 5:41 p.m. CDT on May 22 Joplin, Missouri was hit by a deadly tornado, the first in sixty years to kill over 100 people (the prior such tornado was June 8, 1953 in Flint, Michigan). We extend our sympathies to the families and our thanks to the rescue workers.

In this blog we'll look at a status report to the Govenor of the state written 36 hours after the disaster. 

On going weather problems complicate the rescue efforts - thunderstorms continued to pound the area after the tornado. This hampered or delayed some search and rescue teams and led to additional power outages (53,000 customers without power with restoration "as early" as the next 24 to 36 hours ). Nearby McDonald County reports several road closings due to high water and flooding. Newtown County evacuated 32 homes due to flash flooding risk.

Search and rescue was roughly half way completed.

Large Potential Impact: The Joplin metropolitan area has 174,300 residents. At the time of the report, 2,000 structures were known to be destroyed including residences, businesses, schools, apartment complexes, the local hospital and churches.

Small Actual Impact? Given the number of destroyed building I would expect thousands without a place to stay. The United Way had received 1142 calls. And yet the reports only mentions three shelters; one with 143 individuals, a second with 34 and the third could not be reached by phone? Where are the homeless people staying? Perhaps with friends or nearby hotels?
The Red Cross (with 300 volunteers) was starting a hot meal food service for just 200.
Spontaneous pet shelters are going up.

Managing Resources: Joplin had 5 heavy rescue Teams and 5 ambulance strike teams (25 total ambulances) and did not want more since "Jasper County has all the search and rescue teams they can coordinate at this time". Complicating rescue team management was "a number of self deployed fire fighters" who showed up to help without being asked. Before these men can be used they have to have their IDs verified and skills accessed. Otherwise a thief could show up claiming to be a fireman and offer to search buildings. Or someone barely trained who becomes injured during rescue.

Keeping track of rescue workers is not easy. More constantly arrive:
"Mo Task Force 1 en route (85 members, 4 dogs, heavy equipment)...Kansas City fire heavy rescue en route. 3 cadaver dogs arrived last night, with another 3 to arrive this morning. Kansas City Power & Lights is sending 45 linemen today, and another 45 after storms pass through the Kansas City area."

These workers must be sheltered, fed, etc.

Another resource headache is unrequested supplies that people send hoping to be helpful. The report mentions, "Locating a larger warehouse for unsolicited donations."

Security:  There were 100 law enforcement personnel working to secure 30 roadblocks.  There were 100 National Guardsmen sent but assigned to search and rescue rather than security.

No Hospital: St. John's Regional Medical Center was badly damaged and patients evacuated. A Disaster Medical Assistance Team set up an emergency surgical site with 60 beds
1000 tetanus shots will be in Joplin, and another 300 in Jasper county.

Contaminated Water: In the first 24-hours a boil order was in effect. But quickly generators were powered up on the public drinking water system and clean water restored.

Cell Phones spotty:
"Sprint restored cell site near Memorial Hall, ... ATT reports 2 cell sites have been restored."

Some Rescue teams without Communications:
The Joplin Police Department communications system was not functioning. For repairmen at a Natural Gas plant, land line, cellular telephone, and their 2-way radios were out for a time last night and then cell phone service was spotty. They had walkie-talkies donated and had to use those for communication.

Mental health was attempting to coordinate with local faith based groups. The public was told to use to locate missing persons.

Secondary Incidents: As seen in Japan with the earthquake and New Orleans with Katrian, sometimes the natural disaster triggers man-made emergencies that are far worse. In Jasper country the EPA confirmed that the radiological facilities were OK. There has been one confirmed anhydrous ammonia release of 3000-5000 pounds that occurred in east Joplin. Leaking gas from a natural gas regulator stations caught fire and a pipe was dug up to shut-off the natural gas underground.

Media: There had been about 100 media inquiries. The emergency management offices requested a Public Information Officer from the Dept. of Health to assist with media calls.

Bottom Line

Most people fail to understand just how chaotic and crazy life becomes after a disaster. Water, power, roads, police, phones, 911, hospitals all become unreliable. Shelters may handle hundreds but not thousands of families. Hence the recommendation that you must be able to take care for yourself without power and water for at least 72-hours.

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