PREPARING FOR THE WORST — Emergency officials ready for storms
When all the damage and losses are assessed, the storm system that ripped through Mississippi April 27-29 will go down as one the largest outbreaks of severe weather in state history. The scope of the destruction was so vast and so widespread — from North Mississippi to the Pine Belt — that officials were still trying to verify the losses and damages at press time.
On Monday, April 28 as the most severe storms entered Mississippi and damage reports started arriving, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) executive director Robert Latham said, “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Fortunately, emergency officials had some time to get ready. If not for advanced warning and preparation by MEMA and emergency personnel statewide, the destruction and losses seen in Mississippi would have almost certainly been higher, and the response would have been less effective.
On Friday, April 25, the weather was picture-perfect outside MEMA’s Haley R. Barbour Emergency Operations Center. Inside, however, the climate was anything but sunny.
MEMA staff members and other disaster response personnel were already monitoring the storm system that was brewing to the west, which was expected to impact the state as early as Sunday, April 27. All the elements were right for the spawning of large tornadoes as well as hail, wind and flooding.
At 10 a.m. that Friday, MEMA officials participated in a joint teleconference with the Storm Prediction Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The teleconference was called because forecasters were predicting that the event would impact multiple regions over several days.
After the call, Latham reminded his staff that while the National Weather Service (NWS) commonly conducts such a teleconference, it is a rare event when the Storm Prediction Center and FEMA do so.
Looking at MEMA public information officer Greg Flynn, Latham said, “Somehow we have to get the word out that this is no ordinary weather event. My fear is people have become numb to these warnings.”
Latham, however, warned Flynn of overreaching. MEMA was to receive a report from the NWS at 2 p.m., which should give a clearer picture of where the threat stands now.
Perhaps the most chilling moment of the meeting was when Latham and Flynn discussed the 2011 tornado outbreak that caused widespread damage, fatalities and obliterated the town of Smithville.
Latham turned to a staffer and said, “I want us to go back and look at any problems we saw in 2011. I don’t want us to have those problems this weekend.”
A representative with the Mississippi National Guard reported that Monday, April 28 represented a day off for Guardsmen, but assured Latham they could be ready at a moments notice with assets, including six Black Hawk helicopters based in Jackson.
Then meeting personnel went over a long list of preparedness needs. Latham also instructed his staff to do an assessment of any large outside events that might be scheduled for the weekend, and ordered them to check with emergency management personnel in north and central Mississippi to insure they were ready for the worst.
Other issues raised centered on communication systems and protocol, debris removal, coordination with the Governor’s Office and state agencies, the availability of state, county and local personnel and equipment — even assessing the emergency needs in Alabama that MEMA could furnish should Mississippi be spared.
After the meeting, Latham said in a statement, “As a government we are as prepared as we can be and will respond as necessary to support local governments and our citizens. Now we are asking the public to get prepared.”
On Sunday, April 27, the storm system blasted multiple states, leaving 17 dead in Arkansas and Oklahoma. That day, Latham briefed Gov. Phil Bryant and his staff on the forecast and all preparedness activities. Bryant declared a state of emergency ahead of the storms in order to be able to mobilize assets more efficiently, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency positioned a liaison at MEMA headquarters in case federal resources are requested.
On the morning of Monday, April 28, the mood was grim at MEMA. According to Brett Carr, MEMA spokesperson, damage in Mississippi on Sunday had been minor, mainly downed power lines and trees and lightning strikes, and no injuries were reported. But, he added, the worst was to come.
On Monday morning at 10 a.m., officials received a weather report from the NWS. After the report, Gov. Phil Bryant and Latham held an impromptu news conference at MEMA to discuss preparations.
“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Latham said flatly, and again urged residents to heed the warnings.
On the EOC floor, which is the MEMA war room for such events, personnel from the Mississippi National Guard, Mississippi Department of Education, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, Mississippi Department of Health, American Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organizations were already gathering and watching large clusters of storms that had entered North Mississippi.
Over the next hours, reports of damage started flooding in. Massive tornadoes were confirmed, leaving large areas of destruction and injuries, particularly in Tupelo and Louisville, where response efforts were crippled when the local hospital was hit forcing patient evacuations.
By 5 p.m., 23 tornado warnings had been issued and six tornadoes had been confirmed. Bryant, who was still at MEMA headquarters, said he and other officials were trying to sift through all of the information.
“There is a bit of a rush to get info into MEMA. We’re filtering through that information, trying to verify as much of it as we can,” he said.
Latham said, “As good as our plans are, there is a certain period of chaos” in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster.
However, pre-storm preparation was already evident in the response efforts. For instance, over the weekend officials decided to staff three mobile command centers with personnel from key state agencies. Latham said usually only one mobile command center would be activated, but because they foresaw a widespread disaster, they tripled the staffing. That allowed emergency response leadership in multiple areas.
Also, National Guardsman had already been activated to Tupelo and Louisville, and a six-bed mobile emergency room had been sent to Louisville. Due to effective communication assets, emergency personnel in unaffected counties were ordered in behind the storms to aid efforts in affected areas.
Later that evening, tornadoes hit the metro Jackson area, causing significant destruction across the area, particularly in Rankin County communities of Brandon, Pearl and Richland, and a tornado in Wayne County left nearly a dozen injured.
On Tuesday, April 29, scattered storms prompted a handful of watches and warnings, but the worst had passed. As of that evening, MEMA was reporting damage in 20 counties and 12 fatalities.
Flynn said while he was convinced that MEMA had prepared as well as it could, the injuries and deaths were frustrating and sad, and the agency would work to be more effective when the next natural disaster hits.
“We learn something from every one of these events,” Flynn said.
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