When James Spann, meteorologist from ABC 33/40 told EMS Chief Travis Parker that the data he was receiving and processing on the storm front approaching Tuscaloosa County (Ala.) on Wed. April 27, didn’t sound good, Parker paid close attention. Not only was Spann born and raised in Tuscaloosa and a gifted meteorologist, but he was also a good friend of the Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue Service (TFRS) and emergency service community.
Parker and his emergency service colleagues were already on alert, and their command and control center was up and operational. They had mobilized the operations center days before the massive tornado touched down in Tuscaloosa as a response to National Weather Service reports.
TFRS has 233 operational and administrative staff members and deploys three ALS Rescues (ambulances), two ALS engines, nine BLS engines, and three BLS ladder trucks from 11 stations. The population of Tuscaloosa is 94,000, and the county’s is 180,000. TFRS ALS squads also respond to calls throughout Tuscaloosa County via a special agreement, and they’re reimbursed by the county for their services. Ambulance transportation in Tuscaloosa is handled on a rotation basis by Northstar Paramedic Services (NPS) and Rural Metro Ambulance (RMA) Corporation ALS ambulances.
Early (& Routine) EOC Activation
The leaders of the emergency service community for the Tuscaloosa region were huddled in the concrete basement of the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), handling daily and storm operations, which they practice for on a routine basis.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, Fire Chief Alan Martin, Police Chief Steve Anderson and Emergency Management Administrator David Hartin made a practice of activating the EOC and the city’s emergency operations plan not only for severe weather conditions, but also for any major event that could suddenly occur as a result of the region’s unpredictable weather. This includes University of Alabama football games, presidential and dignitary visits, major golf tournaments, air shows involving the Blue Angels, the U.S. Olympic trials and any other events in which a massive gathering of people could be affected by a rapid developing storm or incident.
“Tuscaloosa is no stranger to storms and MCIs, so we remain operationally ready and can implement our MCI plan, which includes MCI trailers in four locations throughout Tuscaloosa County,” says Parker.
Tuscaloosa Takes a Direct Hit
Although prepared to react to a bad outcome from a tornado, Tuscaloosa has been fortunate in the last decade not to receive a major hit by a massive tornado. But that would all change on Wed., April 27. The EOC was alerted at approximately 4:45 p.m. that a large tornado was bearing down on the region, and Tuscaloosa appeared to be directly in its sights.
So officials alerted their personnel to take cover in place and prepare for a hit. Parker was at home when he received word via the Link system, a phone application similar to a walkie-talkie system.
“Living in this region, you learn that you cannot outrun a tornado but have to try to protect yourself from its devastating and unforgiving effects,” says Parker.
It was apparent that a major storm was about to hit the city, so TFRS chief officers made sure all the 65 on-duty employees knew their operational guidelines, which are the following:
• Stay in place as soon as the winds hit 60 miles an hour;
• Report their status as soon as possible;
• Limit radio traffic during emergency operations; and
• Remember to use the link feature on their cell phones, a walkie-talkie type access system that serves as a back-up to their radios and cell phone system in the event that the tornado and its destructive winds destroyed or disabled the cell phone or public safety radio systems.
You Can’t Run, but You Can Hide
In one part of Tuscaloosa, comic book artist Chris Wozniak had only 24 minutes to prepare for the arrival of the tornado. So he donned a motorcycle helmet, leashed his two Jack Russell terriers to his leg, held a sofa cushion over his head and curled up in his bathtub. He figured the bathtub, located in the center of his home, was probably one of the last items a tornado could rip and lift out of his home. Click here for the video.
When the tornado blew apart Wozniak’s home, he held onto bathroom fixtures to keep from being sucked out of the tub where he took refuge. His beloved dogs were pulled up into the air over his head like a kite on a string, but their leashes, collars and small bodies remained unbroken and they survived.
In the Alberta City section of Tuscaloosa, firefighters Jeff Roberts, Terry Jordan, James (Buck) Bice and Miles Dutton were in between assignments at Station 4. They were in the middle of their 24-hour shift and knew what to do. They secured their equipment and apparatus, donned their turnout gear and relocated to the shower area of a bathroom in the center of their station. The room was constructed with cinder blocks on all four sides, so they knew it was one of the most solidly constructed areas in the station.
“They knew their station could be damaged or destroyed by a tornado, but because tornados can change course so rapidly at the last minute, we never relocate apparatus. So Engine 4’s crew took refuge in the safest possible area of the structure,” says Parker. As an added safety precaution, each firefighter covered themselves with a mattress off a station bed, an action that helped add more distance and padding from the destruction and debris that was just moments away from them.
The EF-5 storm, the highest rating given to assess a tornado’s wind speed, hit like an out-of-control freight train, traveling almost directly over the top of Station 4 and the neighborhood it served, producing 200-mph winds. The resultant damage was equivalent to the damage 50 bulldozers could do if they ran side-by-side through the area, Parker estimated. Station 4 was torn apart in an instant, and ALS Engine 4 was so severely damaged it was immediately inoperable. Fortunately, Reserve Rescue 24 was out for maintenance at the time and wasn’t destroyed.
Luckily, the crew of Engine 4 survived without significant injuries. When their communications center did an immediate “all call” request after the storm passed, their company officer, Captain Jeff Roberts reported that they were alright. Even with their station destroyed, their apparatus inoperable, they were taking EMS equipment and search-and-rescue gear and heading into their district on foot to start search-and-rescue and EMS operations. Like true professionals, the crew of Engine 4 that just survived a near-death experience, immediately brushed themselves off, geared up and moved out to find, rescue and treat the residents they served.
What the crew of Engine 4 and other emergency personnel from the Tuscaloosa area saw when they attempted to move out of their secure locations was a half-mile wide and 6-mile long swath of destruction that obliterated the landscape like a child’s train platform run over by a street sweeper. Buildings were reduced to shredded lumber, drywall was littered like snow, cars were thrown into houses, trees and yards—positions only a crane could replicate.
It was a heart-wrenching site for the rescuers who knew their districts like the back of their hands. There was now no power in the area, no recognizable street signs or landmarks and an eerie silence as the residents laid silent, scared, trapped, injured, in emotional shock—or dead.
Muffled screams were heard from beneath a pile of debris that used to be an apartment complex at Arlington Square in Alberta. Firefighters, police officers and Alberta residents stood atop the pile, digging with their hands, using chain saws to cut through planks and floor jacks to lift the walls that had fallen on top of a University of Alabama student who was trapped several feet under the debris. Click here for a video.
The crews continued digging, but as night fell, the rescue continued. The tornado devastated the Alberta community with few, if any, houses and buildings remaining. Trees and power lines were strewn everywhere. Cars were flipped over, stairwells were twisted, and people were trapped in their homes, calling to first responders for help. People sifted through the remains of their homes looking for missing relatives and any of their treasured possessions. The sounds of sirens filled the air along with the screams and sobs of people searching for missing family members. People laid blankets over the bodies of neighbors lying in the ruins of destroyed homes. First responders had to bypass the dead because of the great number of the injured they were being called on to care for, many of which were still trapped beneath the rubble. Click here for a video.
The tornado leveled buildings on 35th Street between Interstate 359 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard before moving to the heart of the city. A large building products warehouse off 35th Street was blown away and trees that once lined the street were gone. Tall transmission power lines lay across the street. An Alabama Power Co. substation was smashed beyond recognition.
The ABC Supply Co., which provides roofing supplies, was almost completely leveled, its steel beams twisted like tin foil. Store manager, Ron Fawcett, sent his employees home about 30 minutes before the tornado. When he returned to the store after the storm, little was salvageable.
There was severe damage to the Tuscaloosa Environmental Services and Cintas facilities on 35th Street, and, nearby, a train sat idle with multiple power poles strewn across the tracks. Just west of a large industrial area, where Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard turns into Moody Swamp Road, trees and power poles blocked the road. On Willow Lane, a neighborhood street, a tree fell on a house, but miraculously, the tornado skipped over the houses in the area as it tore over a creek toward town.
For more than 40 years, P&P Produce on Greensboro Avenue served the residents in the Rosedale community. But after the tornado struck the area, melons and vegetables lying in a pile of flattened rubble was all that remained of the landmark neighborhood grocery. Fortunately, because of advanced warning, the produce center closed early in the afternoon and was unoccupied when the tornado hit.
Hundreds of homes were missing roofs and walls. Many were buried beneath fallen trees. Massive trees had sliced through some of the roofs. “Rosedale Court looked like a war zone,” says George Weatherspoon of the housing project a few blocks to the east. (3)
The first three shifts after the tornado hit were extremely tense for both on and off-duty crews because neither group knew if the others were OK. “With three shifts to account for and limited cell phone and roadway access, it took three days for us to be absolutely certain that our all of our firefighters were safe and accounted for,” says Parker.
The mayor then ordered a mandatory work schedule out of necessity: a 24-hour shift followed by a 12-hour mandatory extension (36-hour shift total). Then, they were off for 12 hours, on again for 12 more hours, off for 12 hours, and then back to a 36-hour shift. Although this was tough on the body’s biorhythms, it was necessary to keep maximum search-and-rescue and recovery staff available.
The 6X Factor
On a normal work day, TFRS EMS crews see 12–15 patients in a 24-hour shift. During the first 12 hours following the tornado, however, emergency personnel from the Tuscaloosa EMS system treated more than six times that volume—patients that couldn’t treat themselves or find their way to the hospital on their own. The DCH Regional Medical Center was inundated with more than 800 patients in the first six hours after the tornado. Responding from his home to an area in the center of Tuscaloosa, a distance of six miles, would normally take Parker 10 minutes. Now, it took him 60 minutes because he was forced to turn around on impassable streets and weave through back roads to gain access to the city.
Logistics & Planning Save the Day
Despite the horrible destruction and massive volume of debris strewn across the region by the tornado, Parker reports that streets were opened amazingly fast for emergency crews because of advanced planning, preparations and response by Tuscaloosa public works crews. “Those crews had their chainsaws fueled up, in their vehicles and in operation almost immediately after the storm passed,” Parker says.
That preparation and the actions of those crews saved the day—and probably countless lives. “The infrastructure of our city did not succumb to the storm. Our apparatus could begin to navigate through passages cut open by those workers and get to neighbourhoods that were blocked by debris an hour earlier,” says Parker.
“Mayor Maddox and Department of Transportation Director Tara Tubbs deserve a lot of credit for having those crews ready, properly equipped and mobilized immediately after the storm. You can have the best trained and equipped EMS and fire crews in the world, but they will be useless if they can’t reach the people in need of their services in a timely manner,” says Parker.
Parker adds, “By the time we began to locate critical patients, our public works crews had chain-sawed and excavated roads open for us. It was an incredible feat and worthy of great praise.”
Transport by Description
In Alberta City, the most heavily affected area, fire crews set up patient treatment sectors out in the open where wandering, bewildered residents could easily find them. Other firefighters conducted rapid search-and-rescue operations to find as many survivors as possible.
Many of the victims initially found were either unconscious or too traumatized to present their names to rescuers. And, because of the speed at which the tornado struck, most victims didn’t have wallets, purses or other modes of identification on them. So rescuers were forced to do what Chief Parker described as “transport by description.”
“Our crews treated, packaged and transported unidentifiable patients in many cases. So they would document as much information as they could to assist us in later determining the actual identity of the patients,” says Parker. For example, they might write the following on their patient care report: white adult male, approximately 53 years old, about 6 feet tall, found under debris on Maple Street, wearing jeans and a red button-down collared shirt.
According to Parker, the most important supplies during the first hours after the tornado were basic first-aid supplies like 4x4s. “There were so many patients approaching our crews initially that all we could do was treat and release them if they had minor injuries, so we were free to manage significant trauma of medical cases that presented themselves to us.”
1. Tuscaloosa emergency crews were fortunate that their radio towers were located in safe areas and not destroyed, but they did have to compete for cellular service. Because so many displaced residents, and friends and loved ones of missing residents crammed and jammed the cellular system, TFRS crews had to rely on the Southern Link system that they use on a regular basis. “It is a part of our cellular package that acts like a closed walkie-talkie system. It worked very effectively for us,” says Parker.
2. Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue Services works closely with its EMS response and transportation providers NPS and RMA. This was an important relationship during the incident when it was critical that all personnel understand the region’s MCI plan. NPS deploys a fleet of more than 80 ambulances throughout the nine-county Central Alabama area and employs approximately 350 personnel. NPS responds to over 75,000 emergency and non-emergency calls for service with their Alabama operating units. RMA also deploys a large fleet and personnel that are used to working in the Tuscaloosa EMS City and county system. NPS and Rural Metro crews played a significant role in the medical treatment and transportation throughout the Tuscaloosa disaster.
3. With extended shifts being mandated, it was important, according to Parker, that the personnel “pace themselves and not overextend themselves during the first phase of their 24-hour shift.” They had to prepare themselves for the long haul.
4. One of the four mass casualty trailers staged in four different sections of the region (the one housed at the destroyed Emergency Operations was also destroyed. The other three were difficult to get to locations in the region because most of the transportation (towing) assets were placed into service in other capacities due to multiple priorities. Parker says that, if he had the opportunity (and funding) in the future, he would recommend that the mass-casualty incident response equipment stored currently in trailers be relocated and deployed in self-sufficient mobile vehicles that don’t rely on other vehicles to retrieve and tow them to a location.
5. The ALS equipment that had been removed from the back-up rescue vehicle (Rescue 24) that was out of service for maintenance had fortunately been removed and stored at Station 4 in a secure area and could be retrieved and deployed by ALS foot patrols. This proved extremely beneficial and wouldn’t have been available if the unit had been sent out to maintenance fully equipped.
6. A need for additional Albuteral and nebulizers was recognized, as well as Provental handheld inhalers for asthma patients and others affected by all the dust circulating throughout the disaster area. In addition, many people who were relying on electric or battery-powered oxygen generators were without oxygen due to power outages. Parker says that having a cache of spare oxygen bottles, regulators and delivery devices would have been helpful, and it will be something he’ll recommend his system acquire in the future.
7. The power company also played a key role in reducing resident discomfort and inconvenience by restoring power to what Parker felt was about 98% of the remaining structured in the affected areas. “This helped put people back into structures and shelters where they could use the medical devices and have light and environmental control capabilities again,” says Parker. Approximately 44,000 homes initially were without power, but through outstanding response by Alabama Power, there are now less than 200 customers with intact structures who are without electricity. Click here for more.
8. Parker says that planning truly does improve performance because even things you may never think are critical become critical in an emergency, such as the availability of portable toilets. “When you have thousands of people suddenly homeless and in need of vital sanitary facilities, having the location, access and transfer modes for hundreds of portable toilet units in your Emergency Operations Plan is vital.”
To date, the powerful storm has killed 41 people in Tusca¬loosa County. Only 13 people now are unaccounted for from a list that started with 1,126 names.4 As the massive cleanup continues, Tuscaloosa is already focused on rebuilding. On May 4, Mayor Walt Maddox issued an executive order that established the Rebuild Tuscaloosa Task Force. Maddox, desiring to expedite the process, gave the task force until July 1 to present a comprehensive plan to the city council by August.
City leaders seek to seize the opportunity to build a better Tuscaloosa that is “not just better and stronger, but smarter,” says task force chairman and planning and development director John McConnell. “It [the City] got the way it is virtually organically. Now, we have a chance to shape it, and that chance will go away if we don’t take it.”