What if it happens again?

By Sandi P. Beason and Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When the Tornado of 1936 had passed, 233 were dead and 48 city blocks were leveled.

Doctors, nurses, city workers – people came from everywhere to find the injured, carry away the dead and help clear tons and tons of debris.

Other than an eerie green glow in the western sky, no one knew what would come that Sunday evening. Other than the basics, disaster planning and response were virtually unheard of, especially in terms of what the public expects 70 years later.

If that 1,200-foot-wide tornado should strike here again, would we be ready?

Lee County and Tupelo planners say yes – at least as well as anybody could. Ironically, their preparedness has been heightened by another storm, Hurricane Katrina, they say.

Today’s plans

Police would back up firefighters and local skywatchers would keep the National Weather Service in touch with what’s aloft.

These are just a few pieces of the multi-faceted puzzle of how local emergency planners will deal with severe weather disasters, and city and Lee County officials say they have better plans to handle these disasters.

“We are more prepared now than we were in 1936,” said Claudia Howard, Lee County emergency management coordinator. “We modeled our plan from MEMA and FEMA,” referring to the Mississippi and federal emergency counterparts.

The county just updated its disaster preparedness plan. In the tornado and severe weather portion of the plan, roles are outlined for county agencies during tornado watches and warnings, and afterward for disaster relief operations.

The 1936 storm is a measuring stick because of its catastrophic nature – it’s America’s fourth-deadliest tornado.

Howard said recent changes were to update names and phone numbers of emergency personnel. No major changes were made, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a new national response plan.

“Ours will change when that trickles down,” Howard said of how the local agency will react.

Basically, the plan calls for the county to alert the public of severe weather and be prepared themselves. And if a tornado should strike, the plan details actions to set up an emergency operations center to help survivors.

First responders

The city of Tupelo’s disaster preparedness plan calls for “key personnel,” including first responders, to be notified in case of a tornado watch or warning. And of course, they are at the top of the list of post-disaster instructions.

“We are the primary rescue unit if something happens,” said Tupelo Fire Chief Marc Flanagan, who also heads the Northeast Mississippi Regional Response team. “We will have to do rescue, recover and evacuation. In the case of a tornado you’d be looking at people trapped in debris, and we train for that sort of thing.”

He said a May class will prepare responders for this kind of challenge.

With the fire department’s handling the bulk of the rescue, police will become its back-up.

“Our role really expands during a disaster,” said Tupelo Deputy Police Chief Robert Hall. “We have to help wherever we’re needed. We become a detachment for the fire department. Actual enforcement during a disaster is put on the back burner. We are trying to save lives at that point.”

Hall said, like always, police will handle traffic control.

On the ground

Whenever bad weather moves over Northeast Mississippi, a network of amateur radio operators is there, relaying information to the National Weather Service.

“We are the eyes and ears for them,” said Bobby Copeland, the Amateur Radio Relay League coordinator for Lee County. “They see it on the radar, contact us and say, ‘Tell us what you see.’ We validate what they see. … Any time there’s a threat, we bring up the net.”

This first line of defense is also a key part of the county’s disaster plan, listed as the second course of action when a tornado watch is announced. The first is to alert the public through the media.

On a regional level, tornado spotters alert the National Weather Service in Memphis or Jackson, which in turn sends out severe weather warnings across the region. This prompts people to take precaution, in case a tornado or other bad weather strikes.

And don’t be fooled by the group’s name; the members are trained by the weather service to know the indicators of bad weather. Through annual SKYWARN severe weather spotter classes, the weather service teaches how to read the clouds.

“We look at cloud formation and the development of thunderstorms,” Copeland said. “Different types of cloud formations clue you in to severe weather.”