Atlanta Tornado: Managing the Response

BY JOHN J. McNEIL

On the evening of March 14, 2008, Atlanta, Georgia, was hosting numerous major events in its downtown convention district. The National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks were playing the Los Angeles Clippers in Phillips Arena; approximately 20,000 fans were attending the Southeastern Conference Men’s Basketball playoffs in the nearby Georgia Dome. Additionally, 24,000 exhibitors, speakers, and professionals were attending a dental conference held simultaneously with a home show in the Georgia World Congress Center.

At approximately 2140 hours, a violent tornado, categorized as an EF 2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, touched down and cut an unusual six-mile swath approximately 200 yards wide through the downtown convention district and nearby residential neighborhoods. The tornado, with winds up to 135 mph, blew out windows in nearby hotels and office buildings and tore off portions of the roof in the various occupied arenas. It flattened homes in nearby residential areas surrounding downtown Atlanta as well, as the storm traveled on the ground for 20 minutes along an unusual southeast course across the city. Some 30,000 homes were left without power; damage was estimated to exceed $200 million, the most costly damage ever caused by a single tornado (photos 1, 2, 3, and 4).


1. Photos by Greg Simpson.

 


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INCIDENT MANAGEMENT

Immediately following the tornado, Atlanta (GA) Fire Rescue Department (AFRD) quickly recognized the magnitude of the devastation and requested the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) to deploy an all-hazards incident management team (AHIMT). GEMA initially deployed a five-member team to begin the incident action planning process for this natural disaster. In addition to the city’s fire and police departments, the unified command grew to include Atlanta’s departments of public works, parks and recreation, watershed management, and the mayor’s office. The Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency opened its emergency operations center and provided the necessary resources that the AHIMT requested to meet the operational needs to mitigate this disaster.

The AHIMT’s actions closely followed the training members had received previously through the state of Georgia and the National Fire Academy courses. Planning began with an accounting of the emergency responders and resources currently deployed. Next, the team’s incident commander (IC), in a helicopter flyover of the tornado’s path, assessed the damage and scale of the incident. He established geographical divisions along the storm’s path and in additional damaged areas to assist in effectively managing the incident. An incident command briefing conducted between operations and the incoming AHIMT IC reviewed the actions that were underway or already completed. Once these steps were taken, the AHIMT prepared an incident action plan (IAP) for the next operational period (the following morning, March 15, from 0900 to 1900 hours).

The IC established the following incident objectives: ensure the safety of all responders and citizens in the operational areas; complete primary and initiate secondary searches in damaged buildings; control vehicular and pedestrian traffic and cordon off damaged structures; remove debris along all major access routes; and secure and restore utilities in affected areas.

The Planning Section chief prepared division assignment lists based on the operational objectives and operational planning worksheet information from the Operations Section chief and the various assisting and supporting agencies involved in the incident mitigation.

As part of the IAP, the Logistics Section chief developed a communications plan that established a tactical channel for each division and command. He also developed a medical plan that addressed the procedure for handling injuries to emergency workers. He worked closely with the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency operations center in acquiring the necessary resources, such as additional search and rescue teams through GEMA, meals, search supplies, and command vehicles.

The Planning Section chief completed the IAP in time for approval by command and the general staff prior to the operational period briefing at 0830 hours the next morning. The IC held the IAP and safety message briefing for division supervisors and agency representatives at Atlanta Fire Station 4. After the briefing, the division supervisors returned to their divisions and shared the IAP with their assigned members. At 1000 hours, a new AHIMT relieved the original team and continued the planning process for the next operational period.

Despite the extensive damage to the structures within and surrounding downtown Atlanta, there were only 30 minor to moderate injuries to civilians and one fatality. Good fortune was a huge factor that limited the number of casualties. For example, the Southeastern Conference tournament game between Mississippi State and Alabama went into overtime and prevented tens of thousands of fans from exiting the Georgia Dome during the very time that the tornado touched down and ran its path past the stadium.

Another piece of good luck occurred at the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts complex in the Cabbagetown neighborhood. This 19th century mill construction complex, just a couple of miles southeast of downtown Atlanta, was recently renovated. Building E received extensive wind damage that tore off half of the roof and caused all four floors in different areas of the structure to pancake. Fortunately, no injuries or loss of life occurred as a result of the collapse.

Search and rescue teams continued to comb damaged buildings in downtown Atlanta and neighborhoods impacted by the tornado for any injured people until 2000 hours on Sunday, March 16, 2008. At that time, the AFRD’s search and rescue operations were completed and the city’s recovery efforts began. The recovery efforts became a security and traffic-control operation under the command of the Atlanta Police Department, while city workers, businesses, and residents in and around the downtown area cleaned up the storm debris scattered throughout the city streets.

LESSON LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Planning. A common myth regarding tornados is that you are safe from them in an urban environment, that tall buildings or urban heat “islands” somehow keep them away. Atlanta became the 21st major city to be struck by a tornado, joining Houston, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, St. Louis, Miami, and Nashville. Urban area emergency operation plans should also have a tornado response plan that includes the timely request for an AHIMT. Disasters of this magnitude will immediately overwhelm the initial emergency responders and Command’s ability to manage the tremendous number of incidents citywide. An AHIMT can assist in gaining control of large-scale disasters, maintaining accountability of emergency workers and resources from varying agencies on the scene and beginning the mitigation planning process to ensure a safe and coordinated operation.

Preparedness. The National Weather Service has a certification program that recognizes businesses and agencies that have set up plans and prepared facilities in a manner that will quickly move people to safety or provide them with safe shelter on-site. Atlanta and other urban areas with outdoor arenas, stadiums, and amphitheaters would benefit from participating in this program. Outdoor venue facility managers participating in this program will enhance cooperation and communication among themselves and the National Weather Service. Additionally, a planned and coordinated response plan implemented on receiving an impending severe weather warning would be lifesaving for attendees at outdoor venues.

Public warning. Despite modern technology advances such as Doppler radar, there still remains an incredibly brief warning period capability regarding tornado watches and warnings. The National Weather Service notified Atlanta only eight minutes before this tornado struck the city. Atlanta had dismantled and removed its outdoor siren warning system years ago because of testing and maintenance costs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admininistration weather radios are ideal for indoor warning systems; however, a siren network placed in areas where large groups of people regularly gather outdoors can be beneficial in saving lives. Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management will be revisiting the feasibility and effectiveness of an outdoor siren warning system issue as a result of the recent tornado.

Sustainability.Although the AHIMT proved effective in coordinating and planning the natural disaster aftermath response, sustaining an incident management team over numerous operational periods or an extended period of time has not been proven in Atlanta. Atlanta is in the infancy stage of operating these teams. Continued training of members and further establishment of AHIMTs are critical for Atlanta and the state of Georgia to sustain long-term disaster coordination and planning.

JOHN J. McNEIL is a retired deputy chief with the Atlanta (GA) Fire Rescue Department, with which he served 27 years. During his tenure, he served as deputy chief of technical services, assistant chief of training, and battalion chief with 20 years of experience in field operations. McNeil is a member of the Atlanta All Hazards Incident Management Team.

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