Neighbors reach out to help
Fulton County's Office of Emergency Services Coordinator Albert Roork, along with Salem Fire Chief Heath Everett and five fire department crew members, were among the first emergency responders from neighboring counties to arrive in the Highland and Ash Flat area Feb. 5 after a powerful tornado devastated the area.
Arriving close behind, the Camp Fire Department responded with several trucks and personnel. "They knew the Highland Fire Department was out of commission, and they just wanted to help," Roork said. "Our Game and Fish Commission officers as well as several Fulton County deputies also went to help."
Fulton County Judge Charles Willet and 18 of his employees also responded bringing manpower and equipment to the scene. "Charles quickly realized there was a safety issue down there," Roork said. "You couldn't see anything. It was so dark and there were power lines down everywhere. Charles said he was backing his people out of there until it was absolutely certain there was no high voltage power on. He said, 'I don't want one of my guys getting electrocuted,' and I agreed with him. It was a dangerous situation."
"I was just in awe of the destruction," Roork said. "It was unrecognizable with piles and piles of debris. People were in such shock that they just weren't acting right. A lot of them were just kind of walking around, looking around like, what in the world has happened here? Their world had just been turned upside down and they were simply in shock."
"One thing I did before leaving Fulton County was to call the Sheriff's Office and have them contact Fulton County Hospital and tell them to put their emergency plan in place. And man, did they ever do it. They did a great, great job,"?Roork said. "They had every employee from everywhere there and all the doctors. They all went to the hospital. They even had some OMC employees go to the hospital to help. Fortunately, there wasn't a bunch of injuries, but they were ready if there had been. I really thought we would see a lot of major injuries. It's amazing that there weren't."
Because the Highland Fire Station was one of the buildings destroyed in the tornado, emergency personnel were faced with unsurmountable obstacles.
"The fire department was taken out, and that's your primary emergency responder," Roork said. "We got to the Highland High School and there was a tractor trailer rig with a man trapped inside. Heath and the others helped extricate the man from the truck. It took quite a while because regular Jaws of Life doesn't work well with a semi because everything is big and heavy. They are designed more for a passenger car than a semi. They cut the top off the truck of a recipicating saw and the man (Burton Owens from Johnsonville, Tenn.) went to the Fulton County Hospital where he was admitted overnight. That semi was the beginning of the destruction in Highland."
Everett and his team brought the Fulton County based HazMat and mobile command trailers with them and soon began to set them up in the Highland High School parking lot to be used as the command center.
"These operations can be set up rather quickly and are totally self-contained," Roork said. "These units have repeaters and everything for communication, and Highland had lost their communications in the tornado. There was just so much to do, and the cell phones weren't operating right and their radios weren't working right. It was chaos for a while."
Fulton County Sheriff Walter Dillinger said he came back into the office Tuesday night to help with the radio and phones. "We had a lot of folks who couldn't get through to Sharp County and they were calling here. People were calling from everywhere wanting to know how to get through to Sharp County. Even some of the cell phones weren't working. We had contact with Albert and when I heard him say it was unbelievable, I said man-oh-man it's bad."
Emergency personnel from Ash Flat, Cave City, Highland, Hardy and Cherokee Village quickly made their way to the command center to begin the rescue effort.
"Those cities were doing what you're suppose to do. They were coming to help their neighbors and friends," Roork said.
Once the command center began operation, a map was marked into grid areas, and personnel were dispatched to specific areas to check for injured or trapped people.
"They got organized, and they did an excellent job," Roork said. "They went from street to street, house to house, checking on people. It was a monumental task, but they did it."
Roork said he had never met the new OEM coordinator for Sharp County, Gene Moore.
"He did a great job," Roork said. "He just took that thing over (command center). I've got to commend Gene. He had just taken over that position and to be as calm as he was and concerned about everything was great. He is going to be a great OEM coordinator for those folks in Sharp County. I'm impressed with him. Sharp County did good. They got a good guy to lead them in the event of a disaster. I've been in this (the OEM) position for eight years, and I've never had anything like this happen."
Roork said that Moore and several other emergency personnel had homes damaged or lost homes themselves, "But they got there," he said.
"The destruction they got down there was really bad," Dillinger said. "I took the injured truck driver (Owens) to Ravenden the day after, and it (the damage) was something else. He took some pictures of it. He was still shaking and sore. He told me that once that truck turned over, in a little bit it started moving again, about 20 feet. He thought it was over for him. He said he'd never seen nothing like it."
"This was a terrible disaster," Roork said. "but I sure learned some things from it. Number one, that you've got to have somebody in command from the beginning. These people had just experienced a horrific event, and they're going to be in a little bit of shock. You kind of need someone to take over for you for a while to just give you a few minutes to regain your composure. We should have taken the bull by the horns a little more I think to give them a little time. When you're in another jurisdiction they're in command, but I think it's proper and appropriate to take the reigns until they say, 'OK, I've got it now.'"
"Another thing I learned that night is that there is a need for an outside PA system, a loud one where you can make announcements," he said. "We don't have one, but we need one. You have these big generators running to operate lights, radios, repeaters and such, and they are loud. You need an outside PA system to talk to people and make announcements and so forth."
"Heath and his crew did a wonderful job getting the command center set up, getting it going and providing them with the hand they needed until they said, 'OK, we've got it now.'"
Roork said this disaster proved the absolute necessity of training according to the National Instant Management System and the Instant Command System. "This is the only system that works in a crisis," he said. "and that's why the federal government has been trying to pound it into our heads how important this training is. Otherwise, you will have chaos."
"And, another thing. Everybody, everywhere, whether you're in law enforcement, the medical field or whatever, could learn from North Arkansas Electric," Roork said. "Those people respond to a huge area. They do it so efficiently and so effectively and so safely. Those people have it together. That's the bottom line, they've got it together. They've got excellent communications; everybody knows what their job is out there, and they do it very well. And, they work together as a team; not just to restore the critical infrastructure that we need, because without electricity we are nothing. They work together as a team for safety for one another. We could all learn lessons from NAEC. That is a well oiled machine that works very, very well."
Roork said that in addition to the great job Sharp County officials did, credit also goes to meterologists and the television and radio stations.
"The fact that no one died in Sharp County from this horrific tornado has to be a credit to these people," he said. "If people will just listen to what they're telling you it could very well save your life. Springfield television meterologists have got it right. They can tell you, 'Hey, there's a tornado and it's going to be there (a town or area) at 5:36.' And, you can bet that tornado will be there at 5:36. Ron Hearst and those guys are so good. They are amazing."
Roork said this major tornado emphasizes the need for people to have a storm shelter or safe room.
"There is a grant program that exists through the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management. It is grant money that comes to Arkansas from FEMA, and it is to help with purchasing a storm shelter," he said. "They will reimburse people up to $1,000 for installing a storm shelter. There's a lot of different prices for storm shelters out that cost $1,800 up to $4,000. It doesn't matter how nice it is, that's up to what you want. They're all going to protect you because they have to meet FEMA guidelines. My job is to see that they meet that criteria. People can call me at the Salem Police Station or the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, and I'll give them some numbers to call. I won't recommend anyone to them, I'll just tell them what's out there.These shelters can be installed in less than half a day. If you live in a home that doesn't have a basement or a mobile home, you are not safe."
"I know there's a lot of people who say they're not afraid of tornados,but, if a tornado of the magnitude that hit Sharp County happens where you are, I don't care what you say or who you are, you would be scared," Roork said. "This is something people really need to think about."