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Real Pressure from Fictional Tornado for Emergency Managers

The simulated scenario utilized for the training exercise changes annually. Previous trainings have simulated floods, snowstorms, severe weather events, mass vaccination campaigns, and bus accidents inundating EMS and hospitals.

rural road in Florida bordered by trees and power lines with a tornado touching down in the background
Adobe Stock/Wollwerth Imagery
(TNS) - Although the disaster was fictional, the tension in the air was real as emergency management professionals convened in Mitchell for a two day training exercise May 15-16.

Thirty-five personnel from 15 agencies participated in the exercise held at the Davison County Fairgrounds. Jeff Bathke, Davison County Emergency Management Director, said the annual training is part of a requirement for those designated to deal with all types of emergency situations.

While the state mandates one exercise annually for record-keeping, officials in Davison County typically conduct two to three trainings each year.

"Practice makes perfect, and when it's hard to come by, that practice is especially valuable," Bathke said. "We want to make sure we are prepared."

Key agencies that took part in the joint effort were SD Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT), SD Office of Emergency Management (SD OEM), Davison County Auditor's Office, Davison County Commission, Davison County Physical Plant Director, Emergency Management personnel from Aurora, Hutchinson, Davison, Miner and Union Counties, the National Weather Service, Red Cross and SD Wildland Fire.

The simulated scenario utilized for the training exercise changes annually. Previous trainings have simulated floods, snowstorms, severe weather events, mass vaccination campaigns, and bus accidents inundating EMS and hospitals.

The scenario for this year, developed collaboratively by Bathke and the State Office of Emergency Management, involved a fictional tornado hitting the southwest area of Mitchell, displacing 1,400 residents. Much of the city and county public works equipment, as well as Davison County Search and Rescue, was destroyed in the fictional tornado. It also included the destruction of the middle school, a water tower, the hockey rink, as well as apartments and casualties among citizens.

In this fabricated scenario, a weather spotter confirmed a tornado touching down on a Monday evening, north of I-90, moving toward Mitchell. Sirens blared as the tornado traveled from southwest to northeast, remaining on the ground for 10-15 minutes. The 911 Center was overwhelmed with calls, reporting numerous injuries, fatalities, and missing residents. Streets were obstructed by debris, halting travel, while the National Weather Service warned of more storms approaching from the south. Damage to a water tower impacted water availability, and electricity was intermittently lost and restored. Gas leaks were reported in the affected area.

Mitchell Fire /EMS struggled to manage the incident alongside regular operations. Avera Queen of Peace and the coroner's office were inundated with patients. Multiple volunteer fire departments responded, while Search and Rescue began searching through debris.

"All aspects of the training scenario were role played as a real-life incident," Bathke said.

Several briefings were held by Operations, Planning, Logistics and the Incident Command Team. The Public Information Officer and the National Weather Service gave a briefing every few hours during the incident. In-person interviews were given to both local radio stations and simulated appearances from the governor and legislators were included in the scenario as well.

While the situation was fake, the underlying message of the exercise was to emphasize the real and present danger that natural disasters pose to communities. And to prepare for problems that arise as a result of the natural disaster.

"These trainings are very valuable and worthwhile," said Davison County Auditor Susan Kiepke, who attended part of the training. "It helps us to learn what may be expected of us in a real-life incident."

A crucial aspect of the exercise was establishing effective response efforts among multiple agencies, preparing them for potential real-world scenarios.

"We learned from this training that radio communication between the various local, state and federal agencies is a challenge," Bathke said.

Bathke said it's important to build relationships with state agencies and private sectors before disaster strikes a community.

"Anytime we can participate in an exercise with our emergency management partners face to face it allows us the opportunity to review policies, procedures, and operational practices that will help improve preparedness and response related to an actual disaster," said Peter Rogers, Warning Coordination Meteorologist. "Exercises also provide an opportunity to identify any shortcomings and develop solutions ahead of time."

This training exercise holds added significance as tornado season approaches in the state. South Dakota typically experiences an average of 6.6 tornadoes in May and a total of 30 tornadoes throughout the season, spanning from March to September.

Residents in the Mitchell area know all too well how much tornadoes can wreak on communities.

The second deadliest tornado in history to strike South Dakota touched down in Spencer in 1998. The F-4 twister injured 150 and six were killed. Another F-4 tornado that took place in 2003 wiped out the entire small town of Manchester in Kingsbury County Three of the town's six residents were injured. The town has since become a ghost town.

The most recent significant tornado in the area occurred in Delmont back in 2015. That EF-2 tornado destroyed 44 houses and injured nine people.

Even though Bathke has been involved in real-life disasters, with the Spencer tornado recovery as a member of the SD National Guard and the Delmont tornado as an Emergency Manager assisting with recovery, he still found the training extremely beneficial.

"For me, the most valuable part of the training was learning to trust the teams. Plans, operations and logistics keep the disaster on track," Bathke said.

One key takeaway from training for Bathke was that currently debris management is part of the local emergency operations plans, but should be a separate plan with more specific details.

Bathke said this scenario assumed that school was out for the year but future training will involve what to do should a tornado strike during the school year while children are in school buildings and vulnerable.


©024 The Daily Republic (Mitchell, S.D.)
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