Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service
A strip mall in Vilonia, Faulkner County, Ark. was gutted by an April 27 tornado that killed 11 and destroyed 328 homes.
When a tornado tore 42 miles through north-central Arkansas in late April, Faulkner County was ready to respond, thanks to a series of disasters, including another tornado, over the last three years. The tornado was one of an outbreak of seven over four days in the central and southern states that lead to at least 35 deaths.
“We’d been having weekly disaster preparedness meetings for the last year for just this kind of event,” said David Hogue, the county attorney and public information officer. “As much as we complained having those meetings once a week, we were prepared because of that. We’d been ready for months.”
The April 27 tornado’s northwestern path took it through the two sites of recent disasters — Mayflower, where crude oil spilled out of a ruptured pipeline in 2013; and Vilonia, site of another tornado three years and two days before. That twister claimed four lives.
The Mayflower oil spill, shortly into then-recently appointed County Judge Allen Dodson’s tenure, prompted him to prioritize disaster planning.
“We were in that frame of mind,” he said. “We were dealing with the oil spill in our own county and then the Moore, Oklahoma tornadoes happened (killing 24 people in May 2013). That naturally led to thoughts that something like that could happen anywhere” — and it had already in Faulkner County.”
As of May 1, 328 homes in the county were destroyed and President Obama had approved a disaster declaration for the county. The National Weather Service rated the tornado EF4, with winds between 166 and 200 miles per hour, and noted it was the first EF4 tornado of 2014. The 2011 storm was EF2, with winds between 111 and 135 miles per hour.
The response to the 2014 twister has been quick and organized, Hogue said. “It’s been machine-like.”
“(OEM Director) Sheila McGee is wonderful at her job because she’s had these experiences and can put them to use,” Hogue said. “People learn from her quickly. We had our crews clearing the roads that allowed linesmen to come in and restore power, and our search and rescue operations were complete within a day. Those personnel moved onto damage assessment and debris removal.”
After the storm, the county registered more than 12,000 households without electricity, which was down to 4,000 the next day and roughly 1,500 four days after the twister.
“Road crews knew what to do. The county administrator knew what to do; law enforcement knew; the IT department knew what to do,” Hogue said. “IT has been especially important because they’ve helped with public information throughout this.
“At this point, we had enough experience in our county administration that instead of catching us off guard, this tornado just felt like ‘challenge number three.’”
Dodson said the county’s expanded exercises handling several potential disasters, including tornadoes and train derailments, has helped the county of 113,237 north of Little Rock prepare more comprehensively.
“The people whose job it is to prepare for disasters, you don’t have to motivate them, they know it’s important,” he said. “It’s the other departments and stakeholders whose lives don’t revolve around these things, that’s who you have to convince.”
Dodson said that was accomplished by letting representatives from other departments and jurisdictions see the approach the office of emergency management brings to the exercises.
“Pull in the other big stakeholders so your attendees see the value of the other disciplines,” he added. “Content drives success, so bring in your city and county representatives, law enforcement, state and federal environmental protection representatives and get everyone on the same page. Go big. Get real, and do it.”