Storm response requires steady planning

Published 7:15 am Thursday, July 1, 2010

With all the nasty weather in Mower County lately, local authorities have been tested on their storm-response procedures quite a bit.

The county storm-response system in fact involves a number of autonomous pieces coming together in a very short amount of time, in an effort to make sure that citizens are aware of the pending weather and are sheltered in a safe place.

However, everything starts with the National Weather Service, which is responsible for notifying counties of thunderstorm — and tornado — watches and warnings.

From there, the county acts. With tornado warnings, sirens are supposed to be sounded right away. If a tornado watch comes in, Sheriff Terese Amazi said her first step is to notify tornado “spotters,” a group which includes local police officers as well as a number of citizen volunteers. Most of these folks have attended one or more spotting seminars, which are put on by the county every April.

The trained spotters quickly head out to different locations in the county, looking for tornadic activity on the horizon. Depending on what is spotted, the sheriff may then activate emergency sirens throughout the county.

Except for sirens in Waltham, Sargeant and LeRoy, all of the others are triggered from Austin. There are nine located within the city, while Adams, Brownsdale, Dexter, Elkton, Grand Meadow, Lyle, Racine and Rose Creek each have a siren as well. Amazi said she controls which ones are sounded based on where the bad weather is headed.

“A lot is dictated by the path of the storm,” she said.

While this is going on, the local dispatch office is also busy at work. Supervisor Marlys Sorlie said this means contacting a number of entities in a short amount of time. First and foremost are local officers and deputies, who are notified of the storm’s location and put on lookout. Sorlie said her office also contacts the fire department, Gold Cross ambulance, the mayor and county emergency management director Wayne Madson — all so the city and county can be prepared.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on in here,” Sorlie said of the small dispatch office, which is typically staffed by two or three dispatchers.

All of this work has one simple goal — getting information out. However, reaching everyone in a short amount of time isn’t always possible. Amazi said some out-county areas may be too far from the nearest siren to hear it.

“It carries,” Amazi said of a siren’s shriek, “but you can’t rely on them. (Residents) aren’t always going to be able to hear them.”

That’s why the sheriff said it’s important to have her deputies notified of a storm so quickly. If they know where a twister is headed, for example, they can go to the area and provide their own type of warnings.

“If there’s a tornado on the ground, we’re going to run lights and sirens and let people know to take cover,” the sheriff said.

Of course, a lot of work also comes after a storm rumbles through. Amazi said the first thing to be done is to check on people who sustained property damage, making sure they’re OK. However, the bulk of law enforcement’s time after a storm is spent dealing with traffic control, the sheriff said. That’s because roads are often obstructed or people simply like to gawk — or both.

Amazi and Sorlie both said the county’s response to bad storms — including last June’s twister, as well as more recent storms this month — has been good. However, that doesn’t mean responders aren’t always learning and trying to improve.

In particular, Amazi said she’d like to better coordinate where volunteers go to help after a bad storm. Though it’s not explicitly her office’s responsibility to assign volunteers with clean-up duties, the sheriff said she’d still like to be able to provide more guidance when people ask where help is needed.

“Our response shouldn’t be, ‘I don’t know,’” Amazi said. “That’s where we need to improve.”

And how does the county train to get better? Simply through trial by fire.

“We actually get our training every year during the events,” Amazi said. “That’s a part of our job.”