Two weeks into an emergency response in North Carolina, where his First Response Team of America crews were clearing roads and home sites, founder Tad Agoglia got word that “the worst tornado in history” hit nearby. His team deployed immediately to Ringgold, Ga.
“We’ve seen F4 and F5 [tornadoes] before,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion, “but we haven’t seen such extensive damage. The length and width of the path of destruction is unimaginable. After a storm like this, we usually see a dozen people killed, but here, it’s hundreds.”
However, he added, this is what they train and prepare for. “We don’t do construction on the side. We have $2 million in specialized disaster response equipment prepped to respond at a moment’s notice.”
Their goal is to arrive in the crucial moments following a catastrophe, before the appearance of traditional relief agencies, to assist local first responders in reaching those in need by clearing roads and opening up access routes.
Path of Destruction
Agoglia’s help was desperately needed. The largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history swept through the southern part of the country from April 25 to 28, leaving catastrophic destruction in its wake. Greg Forbes, of The Weather Channel, reported that April saw four times the average number of tornadoes, and May had seen twice the average amount at the midway point. Warmer than usual temperatures and high humidity are creating conditions conducive for super cells that can develop into deadly twisters.
The danger, if not disaster, was widespread. Two nuclear power plants in Browns Ferry, Ala., had to be shut down after the storm damaged its transmission system. But Tuscaloosa was hit even harder. Early estimates presume the tornado that pounded Tuscaloosa was on the ground for 176 miles, its winds gusting between 167 and 200 mph, destroying buildings and the city’s public works infrastructure, including the emergency management administration headquarters.
“We are critically short of men, material and equipment,” Mayor Walter Maddox said at a news conference.
This “Super Outbreak” spawned 327 tornadoes in 21 states from Texas to New York, killing at least 341 people. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared it the fourth deadliest outbreak, with April 27 listed as the fifth deadliest tornado day in U.S. history, having set a record for the most tornadoes in one day (173) from a single storm.
President Obama called the loss of life “heartbreaking,” and promised those affected by the storms the full support of the federal government.
“We can’t control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it,” Obama said during a press conference at the White House.
Over the course of those four deadly days, 56 severe weather watches were issued in the outbreak area, including 41 tornado watches and 15 severe thunderstorm watches. Three of the tornadoes have been officially rated as EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, making April 27 the second day in history (the other being the April 3, 1974 Super Outbreak) that had three or more EF5 or F5 tornadoes.
It also was the costliest tornado outbreak, even after adjustments for inflation, with insured damages estimated as high as $6 billion.
Georgia On My Mind
Fifteen named tornadoes blew through several parts of Georgia on April 27 and 28, according to Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, spokesperson of Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA). The twisters ranged from EF0 to EF4, with winds estimated between 175 to 190 mph and a damage path between one-third- and one-half-mile wide.
“We got hit everywhere,” Paulk-Buchanan said. “Georgia gets tornadoes, but not this size. This widespread is unusual.”
After touring the area, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal told reporters, “It’s hard to imagine nature can be this devastating.”
Paulk-Buchanan believes it could have been worse.
“We had storms April 4th-5th and North Carolina had been hit the week before, so it was in people’s minds. People got NOAA weather radios and were aware of storms moving through neighboring states over the previous 24 hours. We got information out to warn people, thanks to the media, and they paid attention.”
Despite the advance warning, destruction was extensive. GEMA opened 13 disaster recovery centers across the state and several counties set up donation and distribution sites.
“It’s critical to have an emergency operating plan,” Paulk-Buchanan said.
By May 22, 4,972 individuals and households had registered for disaster assistance and more than $5.2 million in federal assistance had been distributed to help survivors recover. That includes $2,557,157 through FEMA’s disaster grant program to help Georgia residents with temporary housing and home repairs; $1,840,500 in U.S. Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans for homeowners and businesses; and $875,625 for the repair or replacement of personal property, transportation, medical, dental and funeral expenses under FEMA’s Other Needs Assistance program. In addition, 2,683 inspections of damaged property have been completed by FEMA-contracted inspectors, a necessary phase in the process of getting assistance to the individual for repairs and rebuilding.
Some of the collateral damage not immediately considered is the amount of destroyed timber. According to the Georgia Forestry Commission, 161,208 acres of forest land, with an estimated value of $68,296,055, in 34 counties has been destroyed by the Super Outbreak. Paulk-Buchanan pointed out the potential fire hazard.
Clearing Out Ringgold
In Ringgold, Ga., near the Tennessee border, officials shut down major roads leading into the city because of “downed power lines, broken gas lines and looting,” according to Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers. He estimated that the tornado was in Ringgold for about five minutes. Five people died and homes were so badly damaged that “only foundations are left,” Summers said.
Many of those foundations were buried in debris. By late May, Agoglia’s First Response crews had cleared 25 home sites for people without insurance and who lost loved ones.
“Complete demo down to the foundation,” he elaborated. “For free.”
One home he cleared belonged to a young woman who lost her unborn baby, her husband and home.
“It’s hard to reconcile what they’re going through when everything you love is lost,” Agoglia continued. “We hope it makes her feel good to see her lot cleared, rather than the mess and memories. We can’t fix what has happened, we just help.”
They help by clearing roads so rescue workers and aid organizations can get in, have access to those in need and operate. While one team cleared roads, another cleared a path to the Methodist church — the largest building left standing — and powered up the building with emergency lighting so it could serve as a hub for shelter and a distribution site.
“We have a generator that will power up Walmart,” Agoglia explained.
A third team cleared the cemetery of tree stumps and fallen trees and stones so burials could take place.
“One thing that’s different about this storm is the amount of death and injury,” Agoglia reflected. “Usually, there are a lot of positive stories about close calls. Now, there’s so much loss. It creates a real sense of sadness.”
His despair is outweighed by a personal sense of responsibility.
“As a human, something inside causes us to rise to the occasion: we have a job to do. It’s not just asphalt and trees; there are people everywhere. You can’t help but be fueled by the tears. It gets personal. We go from strangers to friends to almost family.”
Agoglia’s crew of four to six regulars, working seven days a week, was augmented for a week by 20 employees from Lookout Mountain Peterbilt, Ringgold, Ga., the dealership that donated the First Response trucks.
“It was a meaningful response,” he explained, “because these people know how to operate the equipment.”
In addition to the Peterbilt trucks, First Response has been using a Prentice loader from the Caterpillar loader division, rubber track multi-terrain loaders from Cat and Terex, Terex light towers, Cat generators and Stihl chainsaws. Together, they have moved thousands of yards of debris, which is placed in safe, designated, out-of-the-way areas for later pick-up by state officials.
“We’ve had no equipment failure in four years,” Agoglia said proudly.
Having run a construction company, he said he knew what the equipment could do, but explained that this type of operation is a very different application and has taught him that the equipment “can do so much more.”
He plans to do more, as well. If he can secure financial support, he expects to stay in Ringgold another month.
Serving Those Affected in Alabama
According to the National Weather Service, 52 tornadoes devastated Alabama on April 27, with six EF3, eight EF4 and two EF5 tornadoes confirmed. Alabama’s federal disaster declaration spreads across 42 counties.
The Alabama Emergency Management Agency deployed 35 teams in DeKalb, Tuscaloosa, Calhoun, Franklin, Marion, Fayette and Madison Counties. They include 10 heavy rescue teams, 10 medium rescue teams, five light rescue teams, an urban search and rescue team, a state mortuary team and eight law enforcement teams.
The first major tornado of that devastating day struck the city of Cullman, Ala. Rated an EF 4, it caused extensive destruction in the city of about 20,000 people.
To help local residents, Cowin Equipment, which sells, rents and services heavy equipment in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, donated to the American Red Cross and loaned equipment to charitable organizations and local government agencies assisting with the cleanup. It sent generators to light up parking lots serving as gathering points for food distribution, and Takeuchi track loaders to remove trees and debris.
But it also is helping in a more immediate, more basic way, by distributing free bottled water and food to victims in storm-affected areas.
“We’re in the equipment rental business, so we knew an indirect effect would require rental equipment,” explained Jamie Cowin, president and CEO of Cowin Equipment Company Inc.
“We discussed potential needs, but first we thought about what we could do to help our neighbors and support the community. Birmingham Support Manager Joe DeGrotti had an idea: cook meals and supply water. It seemed obvious.”
With support from equipment suppliers and generous citizens, Cowin sent trucks loaded with large, company-owned grills to Cullman, where employees and volunteers are grilling 500 meals every day to serve to hundreds of victims of the tornadoes.
“I’m proud of the team effort,” Cowin said. “It will take a long time to clean and rebuild. So many people lost everything; they just have nothing. We’re proud to support our community during this tragic crisis.”
Cowin said he doesn’t know how long they’ll continue to provide free food and water — “as long as it’s helpful and needed, I suppose. As government agencies take charge, our demand could decline.”
Until then, it looks like the effort will expand to Tuscaloosa and other heavily damaged communities. A very large and exceptionally destructive EF4 tornado, with peak winds up to 190 mph, ripped through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham on April 27, leaving more than 650,000 without power and at least 249 dead, as well as significant structural damage in its mile- to 1½-mile-wide, 80-mile-long path.
“There’s such a wide swath of damage, from Tuscaloosa to north Birmingham in eastern Alabama. It’s tragic,” Cowin said. “There’s a lot of loss of life and property. There’s a lot of need.”
From Tuscaloosa to Tennessee
The need extends through several states. Tornadoes that tore through Marion County, Ala., and Ringgold, Ga., moved into Tennessee.
“Four tornadoes came through,” stated David Weems, Greenville, Tenn., superintendent. “We’re working in the area struck by two F3 tornadoes. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I always heard tornadoes don’t hit hills, but I guess that’s not true anymore.” Fortunately, the area is not heavily populated, with a total of approximately 69,000 in the entire county.
In the ¾-mile-wide, 8-mile-long wake of devastation, crews are cleaning up construction debris, brush and vegetation along the right of way. Weems said the 10-acre area once had approximately 100 homes and mobile homes on it. Now, it’s all rubble.The first step, according to Weems, is to clear debris and vegetation in the right of way.
“It’s the longest, slowest process,” Weems added.
Since May 4, 1,200 dump truck loads of debris have been hauled to leased sites on each end of town. Weems estimates that constitutes only 10 to 12 percent of the total amount, and said damages are estimated in the $12 million range.
“This will be a five-to six-month process,” he said.
To accomplish the task, the City of Greenville leased a few pieces of equipment from the local John Deere dealership and got some equipment on loan, such as a JD 160D with thumb, a 437C log loader (a Prentice loader) and a large 100 Morbark tub grinder for grinding all those stumps and brush into mulch.
“There’s a Nortrax factory down the road,” Weems explained. “The John Deere tractor dealership played a role in making the donation possible. They’ve been great.”
In addition, many volunteers brought their own backhoes and equipment to help clear roads, including the Red Cross and nearby highway departments.
Once the area has been cleared and the heavy equipment is out of the way, Weems said they will be able to evaluate the condition of the roads.
“There’s some road damage, but they’re passable. We haven’t assessed all the damage yet,” said Weems.
He anticipates a certain amount of road repair because the shot and chip paving — a twin layer of asphalt — is not suitable for a lot of heavy traffic.
“The steel track on the machines can do a lot of damage,” he explained.
Among the challenges facing Weems is weather. Because it has continued to rain, crews have been forced to haul in rock to keep the mud down.
“Weather is a big challenge,” he confirmed. “We’ve had a few thunderstorms; it gets our attention now.”
None of the City’s 70 employees were directly affected by the tornado, but they’ve been working so many hours on cleanup, Weems said he had to hire extra hands in order to be able to rotate people so “the guys can get some rest.”
Weems himself has had only two Sundays off since April 27.
“The people need support. That’s why I work so many hours.”
The equipment also is working long hours, but Weems said because they just finished routine spring service, the equipment can “go awhile,” even though it’s working 70 hours continuously.
Budget is an ongoing challenge.
“It’s a strain until FEMA steps in,” Weems said, adding that all the volunteer help and donations have greatly assisted continuing efforts. However, as more tornadoes strike other parts of the Midwest, including Joplin, Mo., and Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, resources will be stretched thin. CEG
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