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Tornado Case Study

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On June 8, 1984, at 12:50 a.m., a devastating tornado struck the small village of Barneveld, Wisconsin. Although a tornado watch was in effect, no warning was issued since the tornado originated near the town. The town, which had approximately 580 residents, was literally flattened by winds in excess of 200 miles an hour. Casualties made up about 11% of the population: 9 lives were lost and 57 persons were treated for injuries. The storm destroyed 120 homes, 11 businesses, the village elementary school, 5 churches, and all the municipal buildings, including a new fire station and the equipment in it. The village was left without electricity, telephone service, or water. Damage was estimated at over $20 million.

The local power company was in radio contact with the sheriff’s office within 5 minutes and was moving trucks into the area within 40 minutes, encountering such hazardous conditions as exposed fuel oil and LP tanks. The telephone company set up an emergency bank of phones. Both companies needed several days to complete repairs. A command post was established to coordinate emergency operations. Local officials immediately began to clear debris from the stricken area. Police, fire, and emergency medical personnel concentrated their efforts on search and rescue operations for those who were trapped in collapsed structures. The village was evacuated to another town where congregate care was set up by the Red Cross, which also assisted in preliminary damage assessment.

The town received State assistance immediately. The State patrol directed traffic and assisted in securing portions of the affected area, and the National Guard assisted in security and law enforcement, as well as emergency operations. The Department of Natural Resources assisted in security, traffic control, and recovery operations. The State Department of Health and Social Services supported the county social service offices, which were quickly overwhelmed with requests for assistance. The State response was coordinated through the EOC, which was dealing with other tornado damage, also.

The State requested Federal assistance on June 9, and it was granted; however, the disaster assistance center was located 20 miles from the town in order to serve victims in other locations as well, and since few residents had cars in working order, transportation to the center was difficult. Many residents were angered to find that emergency loans required several months to process; and having no way to earn a living, many left the village.

The after-action plan noted that the county had no plan for debris removal, and that combustibles and non-combustibles should have been separated. There was no plan for a systematic turn-off of gas or for identification of hazardous materials and toxic substances. There was no plan designating who would be in charge of cleanup, although the highway commissioner eventually took this role. Nor had the best site for this disposal been pre- designated; with 20-20 hindsight, officials realized that each county’s emergency program manager should identify landfills in advance and mark out procedures for getting burning permits.

The town also lacked a plan to coordinate volunteer agencies. While there were many volunteers, no one was clearly in charge.

While our case study has focused on short-term effects, such a disaster can shatter a local economy and change the lives of residents for years. The emotional damage of living through such a disaster is less obvious than the physical devastation, but no less real. Providing emotional support to residents and helping them reconstruct their lives, including the economic base for their community, is a critical part of the recovery phase of any such emergency.

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