The first week of March 2014 and its Winter Storm Titan provided many challenges to Garrard County and City of Lancaster citizens and governments. The weather predictions and what was done has been reviewed by the staff at Garrard County EMA in order to make sure the response was appropriate .
Initial projections form the National Weather Service (NWS) put Garrard County in the path of the named winter storm “Titan” with prediction of .4-.8 inches of ice, an inch of sleet followed by 6-10 inches of snow on Sunday afternoon, March 2, and throughout the night into Monday morning. The forecast for the following days was below freezing temperatures which renders salting operations ineffective. The ice on the roads with sleet and snow on top of it would limit the effectiveness of snow plows to clear roads as well.
The ice was EMA’s biggest concern. Wendell Hatfield, EMA Director, remembered his first major disaster as director with the 2009 winter ice storm. “People in Garrard County are typical Kentuckians. They know that the weather can change from peaceful to dangerous very rapidly and can handle almost anything mother nature throws at them. It’s when we lose electricity that things become a problem.”
Preparing for the Storm
With a prediction of ice accumulation of at least .4 inches, EMA and local emergency responders were prepared for downed power lines and blackouts to be a county-wide problem. The Emergency Operations Center (EOC), where county and city operations are coordinated during a disaster, was partially activated at noon on Sunday with staff conducting data collection, preparing meeting notes, reviewing plans and making other preparations for the most credible scenario.
At 4PM on Sunday, a meeting was held with County Judge/Executive John Wilson, City of Lancaster Mayor Chris Davis, EMA staff, county and city fire departments, law enforcement, Garrard EMS, county health department and school superintendent Paul Mullins. Department heads were briefed on the forecast and potential challenges. Plans for coordination were established and additional staff were put on standby in case the situation became more severe and more resources were needed.
EMA Deputy Director and CSEPP Director Jay Overman stated that, “We could plan for the worst imaginable event but that is a waste of everyone’s time. We took all the meteorological data we could find, compared the information, looked at past events and made decisions based on that. If we had planned for the worst case scenario we would have done many things that simply were not needed and squandered taxpayer dollars.”
Immediately following the larger team briefing, a policy meeting with Judge Wilson and Mayor Davis was held establishing the rules and priorities for any operations that may have been conducted. This information allowed the EOC staff to begin forming a realistic and measurable plan for the night. When looking at what the potential risks were the group saw that communication among responders and with the public would be the deciding factor.
Snowfall began shortly after the conclusion of the planning meeting around 6:30PM on March 2. City, county and state road departments followed their plan and salted while the precipitation was only snow. Throughout the night snow plows and salt rucks were clearing the roads and reporting back to the EOC on the conditions they saw. All roads deemed unsafe were reported to the EOC where warnings were issued.
Emergency management staff followed the incident action plan and focused on communicating with the public about the storm via social media. EMA Public Information Officer and Deputy Director David East recalled, “It was amazing to be in a potential disaster scenario and actually feel comfortable that we had a good network of people sending us information. We’ve never had that feeling before.” The EOC had nearly its entire staff monitoring Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media in order to gather information from the public about what they were seeing as well as issuing warnings and information as the information was collected and then validated. This was the first EOC activation in Garrard in which social media was a viable resource as EMA had spent the previous two years working to increase its following on those sites. It is important to note that 911 is still the way that emergency life-threatening situations should be reported. Social media is giving local response agencies more eyes in the field as they work with increasingly limited budgets.
Fortunately the ice never formed and the sleet was fleeting. But the snow poured in. Over the course of the night the bluegrass region of Kentucky had snowfalls of 5-7 inches. Garrard County and the City of Lancaster experienced no power outages and main roads were mostly cleared. Garrard County School Superintendent Paul Mullins consulted with EMA and the school transportation director and made the decision to cancel school for the day as not all roads would not be safe for travel by the opening of the school day.
The only other major disruption to the community was the disruption in curb-side trash collection. Once again emergency management officials communicated with Garrard County solid-waste coordinator Chris Thomason on the change in pick-up schedules and disseminated the information to the public over the following days.
The EOC staff began to wind down operations at 10AM on Monday morning, March 3. One delivery of local coffee and breakfast sandwiches brought a sigh of relief to an exhausted staff. East said, “That egg sandwich made the world seem normal again.” Most of the EOC staff began to head home then after what had been a 24-hour or more shift.
At the end of the day Garrard County was fortunate that the storm was not as severe as had been predicted and there was no damage to public or private property. Since the winter storm EMA has worked with local government agencies on establishing many of the protocols created during the event as a standard part of their emergency plans. What the EMA staff did learn from the ordeal is that their training and public outreach efforts have helped better prepare the community for any disaster.