By the end of April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Storm Prediction Center had already had a very busy month. April and May is peak storm season for much of the country, and emergency managers were still cleaning up from serious tornadoes that killed dozens of people across the South in mid-April.
Yet again, on the weekend of April 23-24, the computer models were showing something even worse.
“It was different,” said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., which provides national forecasts for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes for the continental U.S. “What had already been an active pattern was going to persist, with a particularly strong system coming across the country in four to five days.”
By Monday, April 25, “the forecast pattern had all the indications of a classic Southern U.S. tornado outbreak,” Carbin said, and by Wednesday, “it was quite clear by 10 in the morning that we were dealing with a deadly situation in parts of Mississippi and Alabama for that day.”
And deadly it was.
From April 25-28, 321 people were killed during the tornado outbreak. Storms first hit Arkansas and Louisiana, pounded Mississippi and Alabama, and continued through Georgia and Tennessee, all the way up to Virginia. On April 27 alone, 314 people were killed — more tornado deaths in a single day than on any day since 1932.
When the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) received the severe weather prediction, it notified other state agencies, including law enforcement, emergency medical responders and firefighters, so they could increase manpower or place staff on standby.
The department double-checked equipment to ensure it was ready for deployment, and checked stores of food, water and medical supplies. Officials used press releases, interviews with TV and radio stations, and Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.
“By six to eight hours before the system tracked into the state, we were using all of our methods of public messaging to impress upon the public the severity of this event,” said MEMA Executive Director Mike Womack. “If they lived in a mobile home, they might want to spend the night somewhere else.”
Meanwhile, local emergency management officials were making similar preparations. Robert “Bunky” Goza, director of emergency management for Monroe County, Miss., was on conference calls with the National Weather Service; county staff checked to make sure the equipment had fuel and that backup systems were functioning; and employees contacted the local newspaper’s website to get the word out.
As the storm system moved in from the west and damage reports came in from the northwestern corner of the state, Mississippi activated its Emergency Operations Center, bringing in all the agencies that work on emergency response.
In Monroe County, which is in the northeastern part of the state, a tornado hit the community of Wren at 3 a.m. on April 27. Local law enforcement, the volunteer fire department and road department workers handled the damage.
Just as Goza finished his first report on the damage and response from that tornado, the county started getting reports that “something was brewing,” Goza said. After a warning from the National Weather Service in Memphis, the county activated its outdoor warning system. “We knew we were in trouble when I got a call from the EMA director of the county to the west, who said, ‘We have a confirmed sighting, and it’s headed right to you.’”
Just 12 hours after the first tornado touched down, the second tornado ripped through Wren, left the ground and then touched down again in Smithville as an EF-5 tornado, the strongest category. “In Wren, some of the same houses were damaged twice,” Goza said.
The entire county lost power between the two tornadoes, and emergency responders lost much of their cell phone coverage and had to use backup radio systems for communication.
Initially they set up a command post in Wren since it was difficult to get information from Smithville, a town of about 900 residents, due to the communication issues. “We finally did get through and realized it was bad — the initial report said the town was destroyed,” Goza said.
A command post was set up in Smithville for law enforcement and the search and rescue team, which received reports of people trapped in the debris in both Smithville and Wren.
As Goza headed to Smithville, “common landmarks that you knew about were gone,” he said. “There was a massive amount of debris.”
The coroner was on the scene and had actually called in coroners from surrounding counties, though fortunately — perhaps because of the time of day — there were fewer deaths than they feared from that storm.
The bad news from Smithville reached the state Emergency Operations Center. “As soon as we realized that we had Smithville and Monroe County particularly hard-hit, beyond their capabilities, we worked with our state response agencies to provide state-level resources to go into the areas and augment the local responders,” Womack said.
Because City Hall, the water department and other essential buildings were destroyed, local officials requested MEMA’s mobile operations center, an RV-like structure with computers and radios. “We transferred command to them,” Goza said. That command post stayed in Smithville for several weeks after the tornado.
Other cities and counties, as well as nongovernmental organizations such as the American Red Cross responded. The city of Tupelo provided search and rescue teams and ambulances.
“We had several Gulf Coast counties come to our aid as we did for them during Hurricane Katrina,” said Goza, who has extensive emergency response experience, but because he has been in his administrative job for less than two years, appreciated the help. “You become a decision-maker and not a responder” when you move up, he said.