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Hams in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio Provide Support During and After Tornado Outbreak

03/14/2012

A devastating storm system moved across the United States on March 2, spawning a slew of tornadoes that contributed to at least 28 fatalities in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. These tornadoes followed an earlier outbreak that began on February 28 and left 13 dead across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Tennessee and battered parts of Kentucky. The Clark County (Indiana) Emergency Management Agency activated the local RACES team to help provide communications support, hams in Eastern Kentucky set up SKYWARN nets to assist the local National Weather Service office and Cincinnati-area hams supported the National Weather Service and the American Red Cross.

Indiana

On March 2, with a cold front bringing extreme weather to the Ohio Valley, the Clark County RACES team set up a SKYWARN net to relay weather reports to the National Weather Service office in Louisville, Kentucky. According to Clark County Assistant Emergency Coordinator Jeffrey Brady, N9WSV, this front spawned several tornadoes that swept through the northern part of Clark County, as well as other nearby counties.

“After the storms passed, we started receiving reports of massive destruction in the Henryville and Marysville Indiana areas,” Brady told the ARRL. The National Weather Service reported that an EF4 tornado -- with estimated wind speeds of 170 miles per hour and a damage width of one-third of a mile -- swept through the town of Henryville, located in the northwest portion of the county. This tornado destroyed hundreds of homes and killed 11 people. Not more than an hour later, another tornado, an EF1 twister, came through town.

“Immediately, ARRL Clark County Emergency Coordinator John Shean, N9TV, initiated contact with Clark County Emergency Management Director Les Kavanaugh,” Brady said. “He activated the local RACES team to help provide communications support in the affected areas. We set up a net, and the RACES team established a command post at the Monroe Volunteer Fire Department. Cell phone service was out over the entire affected area, and landline service was also out in much of the area, due to destruction of infrastructure. To make matters even worse, vital components of the 800 MHz radio system that the public agencies use were either down or severely overloaded during much of the first 12 hours of the situation.”

Brady told the ARRL that radio amateurs were dispatched to staff the relief stations to help coordinate health-and-welfare traffic and assisting with search-and-rescue efforts throughout Northern Clark County.

“As of March 14, we are still providing operational support, Brady said. “We are still coordinating health-and-welfare traffic, as well as directing volunteers and supplies to provide the victims with the resources they need. We would also like to commend the operators from nearby counties in Indiana and Kentucky who have come to our aid with operators and equipment. Even as we maintain operations, we have started making notes of things that have worked well for us, and items we need to improve upon. We have also brought in some new members of the team who are getting some real world on-the-job training. Once we get the operation wrapped up, we are going to debrief the team with our lessons and share this information with other groups so they can be better prepared.’

Kentucky

It is not often that Eastern Kentucky experiences severe storms, but on March 2, several EF3 tornados struck the area, the first seen in the area in many years. According to ARRL Kentucky District 10 Emergency Coordinator and Great Lakes Division Assistant Director John Farler, K4AVX, the Region 4 ARES organization in Eastern Kentucky provided a tremendous amount of storm data during the recent activity to the National Weather Service office in Jackson, Kentucky.

“The town of West Liberty actually suffered some damage in the smaller tornado outbreak on February 29, but the tornado on March 3 practically destroyed the town,” Farler told the ARRL. All in all, 48 counties in Kentucky suffered damage from the storms, and 22 people died. This part of the state was definitely the hardest hit during this outbreak, including the Laurel County area, which had its own SKYWARN operators feeding information to NWS office Jackson.”

Farler explained that the area has a repeater system -- the Eastern Kentucky Linked Repeater System -- that serves all of the Big Sandy Valley, the Upper Kentucky River Valley and parts of the Upper Cumberland River Valley. “This rural mountainous area does not have a high concentration of amateur operators,” he said, “so the system helps us work together to maximize efforts.”

SKYWARN operations on the repeater system started at 6 PM March 2, and continued for the next four hours. “Johnnie Brashear, KY4JLB, in Perry County, served as net control. Hams on the net who were in the areas affected by the storms passed along reports that were in turn passed on to the National Weather Service via NWSChat,” Farler said. “This information was immediately accessible to the meteorologists.” Farler said that more than 33 radio amateurs in the affected area sent reports of very large hail, high winds, downed trees, blocked roads, funnel clouds and downed buildings.

“We here at the Jackson National Weather Service want to thank you all for your efforts on Friday,” said Warning Coordination Meteorologist Tony Edwards, KJ4FYM. “I cannot thank you all enough for the reports. This event serves as a great example of how important Amateur Radio is during catastrophic events. Had it not been for your reports, we would not have known the true severity of the impacts.”

Ohio

Radio amateurs in the Cincinnati Area participated in SKYWARN nets and helped provide support to the American Red Cross in the aftermath of the March 2 tornado outbreak. At about 1 PM on March 2, the National Weather Service office in Wilmington issued a tornado watch for the Cincinnati region. In less than an hour, hams had set up and were operating a SKYWARN net.

“The first indication of trouble wasn’t a severe weather report, explained District 4 District Emergency Coordinator Steve Lewis, N8TFD, “but numerous reports of debris such as plastic foam and plywood falling from the sky. This was soon followed by a string of damage reports. The now-confirmed tornados seem to have been mostly rain-wrapped and were difficult to observe. By 6:30 that evening, it was clear from both Amateur Radio and media reports that a disaster had occurred, and several members of the Queen City Emergency Net -- an Amateur Radio group attached to the Cincinnati-Dayton Region of the American Red Cross) reported to Region headquarters to prepare for probable deployment.”

Hams with the Queen City Emergency Net conducted a resource net that evening at 8. Lewis said that the tasks assigned to the hams by the Red Cross were mainly related to disaster assessment; Amateur Radio was to be used for coordination, as cell phone service and other public utilities were experiencing outages. “A group of 14 radio amateurs met at the Red Cross on Saturday morning,” he told the ARRL. “Two of them staffed the Red Cross radio room for coordination, while the other 12 deployed as six two-person teams into the tornado ‘strike zones’ in Clermont County, Ohio and to Kenton, Grant and Pendleton Counties in Kentucky. Throughout the day, other hams reported to the chapter to help out.”

Clermont County RACES/ARES members staffed the radio room at the Clermont County Emergency Management Office. According to Lewis, they were providing updates and receiving information from hams in the field and maintaining situational awareness for hams involved in the effort. Out in the field, they were using the Clermont County RACES/ARES repeater extensively for coordination of relief efforts in Franklin, Tate and Washington Townships, which include the village of Moscow.

“The most interesting and productive aspect of the day’s operation was a relatively new process for disaster assessment in Clermont County,” Lewis explained. “In Ohio, County Emergency Management Agencies have traditionally done their own damage assessment, with the Red Cross doing its own. Although Red Cross disaster assessors don’t enter homes, the ‘from the street’ criteria are very similar between the EMAs and the Red Cross -- and reporting this data twice seemed like some unnecessary work to both parties. To improve this process, Amateur Radio operators who were doing the disaster assessment function were assigned to EMA-managed task forces in Moscow, the Clermont County village with the most damage. Each team had members of Fire/EMS and county engineering and building inspectors, as well as Red Cross volunteers. The team moved through town, determining damage (and possibly talking to clients) only once, instead of numerous times. All members of the task force were required to check in and out with the command post, consistent with NIMS accountability practices. This process was very effective, and the radio amateurs working in the area had a particularly strong working relationship with the Washington Township Fire Department.”

Lewis told the ARRL that after the assessments were complete, hams were able to enter the information from the Red Cross into WebEOC for consumption by Clermont County Emergency Management Agency, “closing the loop on a great story of cooperation between Amateur Radio and public safety.”



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