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Tornado Warning! Lessons of Public Trust and Civic Duty

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Blake Evermon
July 7, 2015

At 6:15 p.m. on Friday May 29, 2015, the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) issued a tornado warning for Greene County, Missouri. Among the towns listed in the path of this storm was Willard, Missouri, located approximately 7 miles north of Springfield, with a population of 5,500. The city has six tornado sirens. However, it does not have a permanent storm shelter for its citizens and guests. There are two volunteer shelters that serve in this capacity: New Life Baptist Church and Willard Community Church. These churches assume a high level of responsibility with this civic duty, as they are entrusted with people’s lives when the sirens sound. On the evening of May 29, 2015, our community disaster response left much to be desired.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the current average forewarning for tornado alerts is 13 minutes. NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommend citizens have tornado emergency plans in place before a storm occurs. We are counseled to establish and practice our emergency plans, communicate with others involved and identify and mitigate potential issues that might cause such plans to fail. Like many others, my family and I have followed this advice and have practiced our emergency tornado drill many times.

In preparation, my family contacted the aforementioned churches directly. They were told that the shelters open only when the tornado sirens sound. In our drills, it took an average of five minutes to get from our home to either of the two storm shelters. We put our drill to the test for the first time on the evening of May 29. The sirens blared and the NWS warned Willard residents to get to safety because the town was in the path of a tornado.

Imagine the dismay, anger, fear and frustration when my family arrived at the first shelter—New Life Baptist Church—only to find the parking lot empty, the windows dark and the doors locked. Soaked from our venture between the car and the building, we headed to the next shelter. Our anxiety was compounded when we arrived at Willard Community Church. There we found more dark windows and more locked doors, with only the church’s unoccupied van parked in the lot.

Numerous emergency management agencies state that one of the worst places to be during a tornado is in your vehicle—yet this was exactly where we were left. We had spent more than 10 minutes going from closed shelter to closed shelter. Now, in the midst of a tornado warning, we had no choice but to make it back home and shelter ourselves there. Fortunately, the storm passed over our community without causing significant damage. Nonetheless, the institutions that were charged with safeguarding the public failed in their civic duty.

On the following Monday, I contacted the pastors in charge of the storm shelters, as well as the Willard Office of Emergency Management, to voice my concerns over this breakdown of emergency preparedness. The pastor at New Life Baptist explained to me that church personnel did not open the shelter because they received no directive to that effect from the Willard Police Department. The pastor of Willard Community Church was out of town during the storm and had not delegated the task of opening the shelter should a tornado occur while he was away. These failures can be summed up with two phrases—failure of communication and failure of redundancy.

After I spoke to the Willard Office of Emergency Management, the office took immediate steps to correct the causes of the breakdown. The new solutions are as follows:

1) The Willard Fire Captain on duty is charged with alerting the churches to open their shelters when the sirens sound.

2) Each of the two churches will establish personnel redundancy and design a testable communication and emergency plan to ensure that the shelters are open when needed.

Mother Nature spared our community from disaster. However, the scare was a warning shot across our bow. Collaboration and communication between the public and private sectors are important to the efficient operation of community affairs, specifically when it comes to emergency management. The government needs institutions like New Life Baptist Church and Willard Community Church to step up and provide resources during times of need.

This event should inspire us all to review our plans for disaster preparedness. Whether government agency, nongovernmental organization, business, nonprofit organization or individual, we should each consider what we can bring to the table. As citizens, families, neighbors and friends, we all have a duty to protect our communities to the best of our ability. Failure to carry out this duty could have catastrophic consequences.

How prepared are you?

Author: Blake Evermon is a doctoral candidate in public administration at the University of Illinois, Springfield and his research interests include refugee assimilation, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamic radicalization, emergency management and terrorism. Evermon has completed graduate work and language training in Jordan, and field research in Israel and the Palestinian, West Bank. His professional experience includes analysis for the U.S. government and information/cyber security for educational institutions. He can be reached at [email protected].

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2 Responses to Tornado Warning! Lessons of Public Trust and Civic Duty

  1. Blake Evermon Reply

    July 9, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    Thank you very much Dr. Birkland for your response. Can you recommend any seminal literature on improving warnings for disasters? This is becoming an interest of mine, but I am not yet familiar with the literature stream on this topic of disaster preparedness.

  2. Tom Birkland Reply

    July 8, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    There is a very large scholarly literature on disaster warning, and the National Weather Service, in particular, is very interested in improving warning. There’s also a significant literature on disaster management that engages questions of communication and planning. This literature well predates 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, although the latter certainly motivated a great deal of research. Many members of the PA community have undertaken that research. This research is central to the discipline, both in teaching and in research. Those motivated by this particular story may find this a fruitful area of research.

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