JACKSONVILLE — Emergency calls flooded in at the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency just as rain started falling Saturday afternoon.
EMA staff gathered at 1 p.m. alongside representatives from local first response agencies in anticipation of severe weather, a line of straight-line winds up to 70 mph predicted for almost a week by the National Weather Service. About an hour later, that weather had arrived.
Calls came in about downed trees and power lines all at once. Fires were reported. A dispatcher’s voice on the radio in the EMA’s emergency operations center said that someone had been pinned beneath a fallen tree in Saks. The storm was expected to roll through quickly, huffing and puffing its way into Cleburne County and farther west by 3 p.m. The minutes watching calls come through while the storm sloughed rain and spat high winds through Calhoun, though, seemed long.
At one point, an emergency tone — a loud thing, almost like a dialup internet connection’s startup sounds — rang out over the radio, orders of magnitude louder than anything else. But nobody — EMA director Michael Barton, Anniston Fire Chief Chris Collins or Jacksonville Fire Assistant Chief Randy Childs, among others, including a county sheriff’s deputy — flinched.
“You just get used to it,” Barton said. “You know what to listen to, what to prioritize, what to direct your attention to. You’re not helping anything if you’re part of the problem.”
The tone, as it happens, was just the start of another dispatch call, despite its seemingly urgent volume.
Barton is a relatively new member of the county’s emergency response team, a transplant from Etowah County, but he’s a 20-year public safety veteran. Collins and Childs were here when the March 19, 2018, tornado hit Jacksonville, atop similarly lengthy careers.
This room, the second story of a former National Guard armory, is among the safest in Calhoun County during a storm, if for no reason other than everyone there has already seen it all — twice.
Resources versus demand
Though the afternoon wasn’t without hardships — people suffered damage to their homes, power was lost to at least 7,500 county residents and other properties saw wind damage — managing it was a tame experience by Barton’s standards. Resources were available and agencies weren’t taxed beyond their capabilities.
Collins said the March 19 storm was easily an 8 or a 10 out of 10, as far as crisis situations go, with damage far above what any one county could manage. Barton echoed the assessment; the worst storms are ones that require coordination among several agencies from the outside. Saturday’s storm only lasted about an hour and a half, and local first responders had what they needed on hand.
“All the fire departments, police and public works, all were able to manage most of everything that was going on without resources having to cross jurisdictional lines,” Barton explained.
It’s when the demands on resources grow beyond what one county can provide that the EMA makes the most of its operations center. The room — mostly painted in whiteboard paint, so any surface is a work area — is decked out with phones and power outlets, along with monitors, projection screens and televisions, each tuned to some aspect of weather and information management. Most staffers had at least four screens, not counting phones and tablets, and even that seemed just barely enough real estate.
Little storm, big storm
Barton noted that the process for a storm like the one in March 2018 and the one seen Saturday is the same on the front end, with the recovery portion the most different between the two.
Saturday, Collins and Childs were part of a four-person strategic team, ensuring that their and other agencies were responding effectively. In a room next door, EMA staff pulled information from a variety of sources and pushed it out as needed; much of what happens in the EOC is about streamlining churning information in an efficient way, so reports from National Weather Service meteorologists, James Spann and volunteer storm spotters can turn into simple, easy-to-understand information through the EMA’s information distribution service, Nixle.
Unlike Saturday’s line of storms, though, big events have another component, in which more staff arrives to coordinate agencies from outside the county who are offering aid, to direct volunteer efforts and help the community recover from heavy damage.
“This storm ended in an hour and a half,” Collins noted, “but in March 2018 we had to plan out two or three days” to recover.
According to Myles Chamblee, an EMA officer, the last part of a storm is often connecting individuals to resources, like the Calhoun Baptist Association, a local volunteer organization that helps people without insurance or money on hand to remove fallen trees from their driveways or homes, among other free services.
“It’s just connecting those people without resources to someone who can help them,” Chamblee said.
National Weather Service meteorologists ended the county’s tornado watch at 3 p.m., and later said by phone that no tornado activity had been spotted locally — though that status may change after survey teams have had a chance to inspect the area.
Barton said Tuesday afternoon that he was happy with the way the storm was managed, and optimistic about the impact on the community.
“There were a lot of people with damage to their houses and trees down,” he said. “It was a hard, bad day, but thankfully, as far as we’re aware, there was no loss of life.”