When severe storms with two deadly tornadoes swept through the southeastern U.S. earlier this spring causing widespread destruction, personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New York District Critical Public Facilities Planning and Response Team ⎼ in conjunction with other Army Corps personnel across the nation ⎼ quickly responded.
Critical Public Facilities
Critical public facilities include government offices, police and fire stations, medical clinics, hospitals and schools. The team assessed damage and provided critical infrastructure data informing the need for potential temporary structures. This required close coordination with local, state and national authorities who ultimately decide a course of action ⎼ the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the state of Mississippi, and local municipalities.
An EF-4 tornado swept across more than 150 miles across Mississippi including six (6) counties from Sharkey to Monroe. The Storm severely damaged or destroyed a total of 1,113 homes, 58 businesses, and 116 farms and claimed 21 lives. Some of the worst damage occurred in two very small rural towns in Mississippi ⎼ Rolling Fork and Silver City ⎼ where many homes were destroyed, leaving behind huge piles of debris. In Rolling Fork, the police and fire stations, city hall, courthouse and several schools were severely damaged. Government officials warned that full recovery could take years.
The tornado was so strong that researchers at the University of Oklahoma reported debris lifted nearly 30,000 feet (almost five miles) into the air and, reportedly, a bank check was found 160 miles from where it originated!
New York Team
The New York Response Team included three experienced professionals in separate roles: Lisa Baron, mission manager; Kevin Whorton, subject matter expert; and Bhavesh Shah, mission specialist. Some aspects of their assignment included:
● Responding to state and FEMA needs for assessment of damaged infrastructure, briefing a multi-agency task force and leadership
● Maintaining and coordinating a database of approximately 50 critical infrastructure facilities across six counties including Sharkey, Humphreys, Carroll, Montgomery, Panola and Monroe.
● Verification of damage at the 50 critical facilities through site visits, windshield surveys and preparing site-visit assessments/summaries
● Developing a concept plan for temporary school classrooms and combined plans for temporary fire house, police department, city hall and housing at two locations in Rolling Fork
● Tracking progress and status of infrastructure assessments conducted by the Infrastructure Assessment Team from Vicksburg District in Rolling Fork for fire stations, police department, city hall, courthouse, schools and a community hospital
One important task was conducting windshield surveys ⎼ informal surveys done by driving (and walking) through impacted communities and recording observations of damage and the overall environment. This provides a way to quickly get an overview of the community and allow clear comparisons among different areas to determine where to focus efforts. Personnel completed surveys of sites in six counties ⎼ Sharkey, Carroll, Montgomery, Humphreys, Panola and Monroe ⎼ assessing needs for potential temporary critical public facilities.
Infrastructure assessments and site visit information were provided to FEMA/MEMA/County officials resulting in a clear need for temporary facilities with severe damage including the fire station, police department and city hall, and the South Delta Elementary School. The high school, community hospital and county courthouse had moderate damage.
“Mission manager Lisa Baron said: “The devastation and destruction in Rolling Fork was heartbreaking to see. Exposed slabs were visible where homes used to be and infrastructure in debris piles littered the town. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to be a part of this emergency response mission.”
In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, Rolling Fork’s mayor, Eldridge Walker, said in a news report: “Sharkey county in Mississippi is one of the poorest counties in the state of Mississippi, but we are still resilient,” adding, “give us what we need to help businesses and families to get back on their feet. Whatever the federal government can do, do it.”
New York District Commander Col. Matthew Luzzatto stated: “Emergency response is an important mission of the Army Corps of Engineers that we take very seriously. Highly-trained personnel quickly deploy to disaster areas helping communities recover and move towards normalcy. It’s one aspect of our work serving the nation.”
Mission manager Lisa Baron, mission specialist Bhavesh Shah, and Kevin Whorton, subject matter expert, have since returned to their New York home stations. Emergency response staff will remain on call for any further requests for assistance.
This isn’t the first time the New York District has responded to devastation from severe weather. In 2011 a tornado destroyed the town of Joplin, Missouri, resulting in 150 fatalities, 1,000 injuries and flattening most everything in its path. Personnel assessed damage and designed critical public facilities ⎼ including a new middle school, fire station, hospital and police department.
Each year the Army Corps of Engineers ─ with 43 Districts in the U.S. ⎼ deploys hundreds of trained personnel and resources across the nation and its territories to respond to emergencies and aid in disaster response and recovery. Under the National Response Framework and authorities of the Stafford Act, the Army Corps works under the direction of FEMA as a member of the federal team to support state and local governments responding to major disasters.