Rapid Response: Tornadoes, storms damage critical public safety infrastructure

Community support and agency coordination will be essential to assist search, rescue and recovery missions across the Midwest


MAYFIELD, Ky. — With nearly unimaginable force and ferocity, thunderstorms and tornadoes ripped through parts of the Midwest on Friday, leaving a more than 200-mile swath of destruction just two weeks before many celebrate Christmas.

What happened

Severe storms and upwards of 30 tornadoes were reported across six states on Dec. 10, 2021. While only one tornado has been confirmed by the National Weather Service as of this writing, it seems assured that many more will be confirmed as teams review the meteorological data and survey the sites.

President Biden has approved a federal disaster declaration for Kentucky, with at least 70 deaths reported in that state alone.

Why it matters

The storm's path of destruction was massive, hitting some communities particularly hard. The town of Mayfield, Kentucky, received significant damage, with much of its public safety infrastructure destroyed. Mayfield’s courthouse was heavily damaged, while both the fire and police stations were destroyed in the storm. Drone footage shows catastrophic damage through much of the town.

As public safety officials in at least five other states continue to dig through the debris, there are widespread search and rescue missions underway involving at least one nursing home in Arkansas and a large Amazon warehouse in Illinois.

The Associated Press reports, the storms hit a candle factory in Kentucky, an Amazon facility in Illinois and a nursing home in Arkansas. [Kentucky Governor] Beshear said about 110 people were in the Mayfield factory when the tornado hit, adding, “This has been the most devastating tornado event in our state's history.” 

FEMA has dispatched at least one USAR team and additional support teams have been activated and dispatched, while other teams have been advised to continue monitoring incoming requests. The Lexington (Kentucky) Fire Department has dispatched a team of 10 personnel and four vehicles to the area, while many other departments are surely offering assistance.

While much of the critical infrastructure in Mayfield appears to have been destroyed, emergency response personnel are already on the scene and will continue to work 24/7 with incoming assets to search all of the collapsed properties in the lengthy rescue and recovery efforts.

Fire and other public safety agencies are accustomed to chaos management, but chaos doesn’t usually involve the destruction of our own facilities, along with support and courthouse facilities. The public safety needs and immediacy of response don’t stop because our buildings are gone.  This will be a dynamic situation for a small town’s public safety fabric, requiring neighboring community support and extreme coordination for the local resources that are able to operate. Loss of your community response capabilities tears at the very core of what the fire and police services are responsible for and sworn to provide.

In addition to the physical public safety structures and response apparatus, water, sewer, power and gas supply infrastructure must also be examined to ensure continuity of services through the disaster. This may require extensive outside and corporate support in the form of apparatus, communications tools and more, as the community works to provide the services necessary for continuing recovery.

Authorities survey damage from a tornado is seen in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Local firefighters, EMS and first responders check for survivors trapped in homes and vehicles in the neighborhood off Creekwood Avenue in Bowling Green, Ky., early Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. (Grace Ramey/Daily News via AP)
Emergency response workers dig through the rubble of the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Authorities survey damage from a tornado is seen in Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/STF)
A tornado reportedly hit a Trumann (Arkansas) Fire Department station.

Weather extremes

Although not unheard of, December is not a month known for significant tornado activity. As weather extremes continue to broaden, emergency response departments will continue to be challenged to respond to larger and more difficult natural disaster scenes.

What’s next

FEMA teams and management has only begun to mobilize, and other states may yet request federal disaster assistance. Fire departments must honor existing mutual-aid agreements and await EMAC request deployment orders. While there is no indication of widespread trouble yet, history has shown that self-dispatching is not the appropriate answer and only serves to complicate coordination efforts.

We will continue to share information as it becomes available.

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