April 27th 2011 tornadoes, and the week following

I’m transitioning from the last week of disaster recovery back to my ‘normal’ working days, and wanted to dump a sort of record of events here before I forget. I have other posts planned, about how to prepare if you want to help in the next one, and about how to prepare your family for something similar. This is pretty long. It doesn’t cover a lot of the technical details of the ham response – I expect that those will be recorded in great detail in the after-action reports that will be prepared.

A week ago today, Alabama was hit by the worst weather disaster in our history, which set national records for tornadoes – greatest number, longest number of miles tracked, and probably greatest number of weather fatalities in a single day for the state.

Some areas further south were much more devastated. A world-record massive tornado tracked for a total of more than 430 miles from Mississippi to North Carolina. The track can be seen from space in satellite images.

Check out this blog post about it.

My county was hit as well, with several neighborhoods destroyed. Our number of fatalities was much lower, due to the differences in the weather but also due in part I believe to the efforts of the storm spotters that we have operating in this area. During the storm, I was operating on amateur radio, most of the time in the role of “Net Control Station”, coordinating radio traffic between hams and the Emergency operations center. I shared that duty with several other local hams, including my son Nick (N1CKC). My family and I had to take cover three times during the day due to tornadoes tracking toward our house. Our county has a population of about 300,000 people.

The area of greatest destruction in our county was in an area about 7 miles from my house. Photos of the destruction can be seen here.

Anderson Hills, Toney, Harvest, and Carter’s Gin are all in that area near me.

My wife Susan and I saw the tornado that struck there pass just north of our house, with the rotation forming.

Toward the end of the day my fifteen year old son Nick (N1CKC) relieved me on the radio, as I was exhausted. He did a great job. Before the end of the day, he was able to help get assistance to a motorist having heart failure from the affected area, where ham radio was the only communication. I have heard that the person is doing well. Unfortunately, I think that the recording of the net reached the ustream time limit and stopped before that happened.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, the radio audio from that day is here, but there’s a big break in the middle from when we lost power until later when I was on generator power and had a free second to restart the streaming. I’m identified by my call sign AI4QR, and Nick is N1CKC. During the earlier (shorter) recording my transmit audio is distorted. This is probably due to the proximity of the receiving antenna to the transmitting antenna, but the audio is clean in the second recording while I was running on generator. Also during the first recording, audio level is initally low, but was adjusted higher after a bit.

I know a lot of people are interested and have asked me, so I’ll make another post about how to get involved and trained and be ready to help during disasters like this.

The entire area lost power during the event, due to damage to major portions of the grid feeding us. The transmission lines to the Brown’s Ferry nuclear power plant (22 miles upwind of me) were severed, and the plant made an emergency shutdown. The design is identical to the Fukushima power plant in Japan. The plant has not yet been restarted, but it has been returned to the grid with a connection capable of sustaining remaining shutdown operations at the plant, and they are off of local generator power. Restarting the plant will take days or weeks. With all major distribution points into the area severed, we had over 300,000 people without power.

That was Wednesday. Wednesday night, I continued to operate on generator, and had all the network infrastructure in my house on the generator. My Knology internet stayed up until I shut down the generator, many hours after the power went out. My network connection was dead the next morning, as was my phone and TV service. I verified that my HF radio was working, and checked in as requested on 40m with the local Red Cross Chapter House and State EMA office in Clanton Alabama.

Incidentally, during the event I was streaming that audio, watching weather radar, looking up locations on google maps, and looking up ham radio call signs on the internet – all using 100% Ubuntu (Lucid). I was also getting occasional help from Kamal Mostafa (KA6MAL) in CA helping decipher things that were hard to hear on the radio – he was listening to the streaming audio.

Cell phone coverage was pretty bad right after the event. Even in areas with all the towers intact, calls would not complete, but SMS messages usually did, depending on the carrier. As far as I am aware, Verizon customers had the best service in the few days following the storms. Calls were hard to make and would sometimes disconnect. Most of the time and in most locations from Friday (two days later) on, I have still had a network connection on my android through Verizon, often a 3G connection.

On Thursday I checked the house, made sure we had no damage, set up the camp stove and inventoried food and water, and prepared for the 5-7 days that we were told we’d be without power. Not much happened on Thursday except for ongoing search and rescue operations in the affected area. Amateur radio operators were operating the stations at the Madison County EOC and the Red Cross Chapter House, as is normal for any sort of response that we make. There were no major cleanup efforts under way during S&R operations, and the affected area was pretty well shut down by law enforcement. Some roads in the area were impassable.

Personally, my family was in good shape. We had plenty of food, a camp stove with lots of fuel, a generator with enough fuel for a couple of hours of operation each day (which we used to charge cell phones and batteries for the amateur radios). City water never stopped working for most of the area including us, but we have filtration devices for camping and would have been fine even if the water had stopped working. A dusk to dawn curfew was announced, and law enforcement presence was heavy, especially in the affected area.

Most people stayed off the roads in the few days after the event – There was a lot of time devoted in the media and on the amateur radio repeater to discussion of where gasoline was available. With all power out, every intersection with a traffic light became a four-way stop, so it was good that traffic was light. During the driving I did as part of the recovery effort, at least twice a day I saw people blatently ignoring this and blowing through intersections, so it was necessary to drive very defensively. After the first day, law enforcement started ticketing people for this, and it got better. There was power within 30 miles of us in two directions, and many people drove there to get gasoline, but waited for hours to get it.

I was lucky to have almost full tanks in all my vehicles, my normal generator can filled, and a lawnmower can that was almost full. I try to not let the vehicles get too close to empty, but it doesn’t always happen. In the day after the event, I was able to make contact with all of my family in the area and in south Alabama, and make sure they were all OK.

Almost the entire area had water throughout the entire event and recovery. People with wells had no water while the power was out but there was plenty of water available nearby and I believe that some was distributed by relief agencies. Some people at higher elevation had water pressure problems, but it generally wasn’t a problem. We were asked to conserve, and of course there were reports of people washing their cars and watering their lawns. I’m not sure whether that was really much of a problem, or just something that made spectacular press. Had we not had a good water supply through this, the disaster recovery would have been much, much harder.

I’m a Red Cross volunteer for disaster relief and work with them through the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) and the Huntsville Amateur Radio Club, and on Friday I was asked to report to the chapter house to help. The chapter house is more or less the business office, not and end-point for distribution of services. There’s a radio room there where communications with the Emergency Management Agency‘s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and field units are handled. My son Nick is a Red Cross youth volunteer, and went with me. We were put to work helping run extension phone lines, and extension cords to places where they were needed in the building. The building was under generator power, and not all areas had lighting or power outlets live. It turns out that my most valuable skill that morning was being able to deal with telephone and networking cabling. Nick and I spent most of the day running cables, then on radio duty in the afternoon. Search operations were still ongoing in the most affected areas, so there were not a lot of volunteers out in the field, except for reponse from disaster-related agencies. The Southern Baptist Disaster Response organization was active, as was an emergency medical clinic set up in the area. Those operations are both well organized and operate independently so while I’m not aware of exactly what they were doing, I know they were working very hard and doing a great job. There was also a response center set up in a community center in the area, and a shelter.

The Red Cross has their own radios in use, so the amateur radio station there is not needed for them to communicate with their vehicles and shelters, but we provide a connection when needed between them and the county EOC, and the state EOC if needed (State communications was not required for this event, although we did pass a few messages with them). With ham operators deployed at the community center and medical clinic, we passed messages related to their needs, and messages that hams in the field were taking from the public. The topics I remember being discussed most in the two days after the event are delivery of tetanus vaccines for vaccination of field workers, availability of oxygen and insulin, and prescription drugs. The Governor of the state signed an executive order allowing pharmacies to dispense “noncontrolled medications as long as there is a prescription bottle, insurance claim, or some written evidence that the patient had a previous prescription”. This was a great help to people, as many pharmacies were still operating.

Saturday, I showed up again at the Red Cross with Nick, but this time we brought 1000 feet of CAT5 cable, a hundred RJ-45 ends, a crimper tool and other tools. That was really appreciated, and we did more phone work that morning. It turns out that the cable wasn’t needed, as the Red Cross had their own, as well as some structured wiring ends that we used.

In the afternoon, it was radio duty, passing messages between the EOC, the Red Cross, and people in the field at an emergency medical clinic. I also learned a lot about the infrastructure at our local Red Cross office – how the phone system works, how to reboot it if it hangs up, how to check the generator fuel level, where to get more fuel, etc. This is normally all done by one very capable guy at their office, Woody Ziegler K8GNM , and it was great to be able to take some load off of him. People with tech skills have value in a disaster zone. One advantage of this was that during breaks I was able to find an open network jack and generator power in the phone closet and have some network access for a few minutes. I was able to contact my manager at Canonical and let him know what was happening. Incidentally, the support I’ve gotten from my coworkers and management there has been amazing.

Saturday another Red Cross volunteer showed me papers that landed in her front yard falling from a clear sky on Wednesday from businesses more than 70 miles away.

There was also a good bit of planning that took place on Saturday about how to support the field operations that would begin the next day for VOAD – Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters. I wasn’t involved in this but I overheard a good bit of it. One of our local ARES/RACES members is Chuck, N4NM, and he is our coordinator with VOAD. Chuck did a magnificent job with this – he arranged for Gander Mountain to donate dozens of FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Services) for use in this effort.

Sunday, Nick (N1CKC) was assigned to the First Baptist Church as part of the ham team assigned there along with Chuck N4NM, Charlie W1CST, and Justin (forgot his call), so I took him and hung around until it was time for my afternoon shift at the Red Cross. We put batteries in the FRS and GMRS radios and labeled them (A label maker and extra label material is a great addition to your go box). This facility was set up to process hundreds of volunteers for field cleanup, and I think that they processed a couple of thousand in two days. I’m sure that more details will be available from the people who were there. What I saw when I arrived was a really well organized operation, set up to do in-processing with surveys to determine which skills people had, and get their paperwork processed (liability releases, emergency contacts, ID check). People were issued armbands which were required to be in the disaster area, and then assigned to teams. After a briefing on safety and operations, they were deployed as teams. CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) members were used as team leaders.

Up until Sunday morning, ham operations had been primarily taking place on our main emergency net repeater, with people moving to the repeater normally used by Skywarn operations to pass extended messages directly between stations. Starting Sunday, VOAD operations were moved to the Skywarn repeater, with other traffic remaining on the main one. This worked out really well as far as I know. I’m sure there will be more detailed reports about VOAD operations made when things settle down some more. The FRS and GMRS radios were issued in pairs to teams, and hams assigned to accompany one or more teams (I’m fuzzy on the details of this). This kept individual team traffic off of the repeater, and let the assigned ham relay traffic back to the main operations center at First Baptist Church.

One thing to mention is that there was a lot of stuff going on at the same time, in many places and using many different repeaters and simplex frequencies. My view on all of this was very small and I was usually only listening to one repeater, so I missed a lot of the parallel activities.

This is a good time to mention the sheer numbers of hams involved. I’ve mentioned a few but there were many others. When I say “I was working the radios at the Red Cross”, there were always at least two other hams there helping, and I met dozens of hams face to face for the first time during the last week. During the deployment of cleanup teams, there were more than one hundred hams working within the county on each of those days. Our county Emergency Coordinator Rolf K4RGG and the club president Mark N4BCD are putting together more detailed lists. I want to make it clear that I wasn’t part of a small number of people helping – this was a huge, coordinated effort.

Sunday afternoon I was back at the Red Cross building, helping in the radio room. Cell phone service was largely restored, and an information line had been established so people could dial 211 and get to a phone bank at the EMA which coordinated questions and services. I think that this was in place by Friday but I’m not sure. This in combination with the media announcing it reduced a lot of the ham radio traffic for basic questions.

On Sunday my van was starting to run a little low on fuel and I was able to fill up from a special disaster distribution center that was set up, which saved me waiting through the very long lines at the stations which were open. I’ve never had the experience before of having my car filled directly from a gasoline tanker truck. As of Sunday morning, all the hospitals, water and wastewater treatment plants, and a main corridor with gas stations and grocery stores had power – about 4% of the county. That power was coming from the nearest hydroelectric generation plant at Guntersville dam. By the end of the day, power had been restored to many more areas. I was really hopeful as I was driving home last night power was on in my area – but it stopped about 1/2 mile from my house. But a couple of hours later, we got power, followed shortly after by cable and internet. A lot of the area was still without power (I think around 50%), and they halted turning on more areas until they had more capacity.

Each day, my routine was to work from around 8 AM until 6PM, come home and have dinner with my family, then take a cold shower and pass out.

On Monday, cleanup efforts continued through VOAD, but I took a day off to get the house back in order, pack up the camping gear, do some laundry, take a hot shower, and be with my family. I made a grocery run to get enough fresh food to get us through the rest of the week and we had a nice hot dinner with fresh greens. Stores were well stocked and busy, but things were pretty much back to normal in every place that had power.

Tuesday was rainy, and cleanup efforts dwindled due to that. I was at the Red Cross again in the afternoon, but there wasn’t much radio traffic, as most areas had telephone service. We had thought that we would shift net control operations from the radio station at the EOC to the Red Cross, but it turns out that most of the radio traffic was still for the EOC, so we left it as it was. Tuesday afternoon, another major power feeder was connected to the area by TVA, and the local utilities begain bringing up the rest of the area, up to about 97% were powered by Wednesday morning. The remaining areas are ones which have damage localized to one street or pole, and they will be serviced as they can get to them. The curfew was lifted on Tuesday. It served its purpose well – there were not too many burglaries, and several people were arrested while attempting them. There were a number of arrests for curfew violation.

Today – Wednesday, one week after the disaster, cleanup efforts continue through VOAD. The community center is still operating in the affected area. FEMA has declared this county a disaster zone, and is bringing in resources to help people file claims for federal assistance. Since people are returning to work, it’s getting more difficult to find hams who can help with the effort. I think that there will be another big cleanup push on Saturday when people are available but it’s getting more difficult to fill the needs of the field teams. But – cell phone communications is getting better in the affected area, so there are some alternatives. I’m back at work also, monitoring the repeater. We’re being asked to conserve power, especially during afternoon air conditioning peak use times. There’s no redundancy in the system now and if either of the two inbound ties into the city drops off, it will take another couple of days to cycle power back on and restore power again.

During the whole week the best thing for me after the health and safety of my family has been that I’ve been able to help. In organizations like the Red Cross and the amateur radio community, there’s a definite spirit of Ubuntu, even for those who don’t know the word. As I meet the people working in communications, logistics, mass care, disaster assessment, etc – they have been very thankful to have a geek there. Communications are essential during a disaster response. Radio, telephone, and networking skills are all important.

I’ll have another post about this later but in short – after a disaster you will be limited in what you can contribute unless you are previously registered and trained by organizations who participate in disaster recovery. You may be able to contribute to efforts like the debris cleanup which started here several days after the event. This type of contributor is a “Spontaneous” volunteer, and their efforts are extremely valuable. But if you have a desire to be prepared to be involved more immediately and deeply when you are needed or to be of service in disaster areas other than your local area, then as soon as this disaster settles down you should begin the process of getting connected with the agencies and organizations who can make more immediate use of any specialized skills you have.

During the whole disaster, the response of the Huntsville Madison County Emergency Management Agency here has been amazingly professional and prompt. This community has a lot to be thankful for. I can’t imagine what it’s been like in the areas with more damage and a less developed emergency response community.

About Steve

I'm Steve Conklin, AI4QR I'm employed by Salesforce, on the SRE team for Heroku. Interests include Linux, open source software and hardware, electronics and music, and amateur radio.
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3 Responses to April 27th 2011 tornadoes, and the week following

  1. len says:

    Good summary, Steve. Job well done! Thanks!

  2. Alan says:

    Very well stated recap here Steve… and Thanks again for your contributions.

    For those readers that were not here to listen, I was operating my portable ham radio station and helping coordinate information and resources at the medical field clinic just south of Anderson Hills, our ‘Ground Zero’ . . . You can see a few brief blog posts and links to my photo galleries via http://wb5rmg.wordpress.com . A comprehensive description from that position will be forthcoming. Steve has explained a lot of things here that I won’t have to repeat in my postings. Thanks for that .. /;^)

  3. The community is lucky to have people like you and your family. This is a great narrative. Thanks for sharing it!!

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