Cities learning from tragedy at Greensburg

Coming off a record-breaking tornado year in Kansas in 2007, including the monster that leveled Greensburg on May 4, residents are reminded with addi?tional urgency to hope for the best but always, always prepare for the unimaginable.

That same sense of renewed urgency holds true for local governments, according to Larry Paine, Hillsboro city administrator.

?How do I get prepared for something like that?? Paine said of potential weather disasters like Greensburg. ?You don?t get prepared for it, but you have in mind how you get through the recovery process?or at least how to start that process.

?That?s the thing that?s becoming more clear statewide because of Greensburg. They now have a clue about coordinating the disaster recovery.?

Paine said he spent some time two weeks ago with his counterpart in Greensburg, Steve Hewit, to find out more about the recovery process.

Hewit was on his first job as a city manager for only 11 months when the tornado leveled about 90 percent of his community of around 1,500 people.

?It gave me a perspective on what the city manager does in that kind of environment,? Paine said, adding with a wry smile: ?He has, to say it nicely, grown in his experiences.?

As for community residents, Paine said, ?I think the thing I learned from Greensburg is that people need to know where they?re going to go for shelter, then they need to know how, after the event, that they?re going to contact friends and relatives to say, ?I?m OK.?

?Then they need to be able to deal with all of the stuff that comes after that.?

By virtue of his job, Paine said he has a broader concern, too.

?What I?m thinking about is, how do I prepare for the continuity of government?? he said. ?The thing I learned form Steve was the way that he?s had to deal with FEMA and the (Kan?sas) Division of Emer?gency Manage?ment created some challenges.

?Once I know there?s this period of confusion to deal with, it?s OK that things are confused,? he added. ?You just have to manage your way through that.?

?Simple? preparation

That said, Paine, who has been on the job since July, said he is working to make Hillsboro as prepared as possible.

?I think almost every community has deficiencies,? Paine said. ?Until you actually experience that, and know what needs to be done, you?re going to get caught.?

He said several ?simple things? have occurred within the past year to better prepare the city. One was the addition of another storm siren to ensure the entire city is covered. Most local sirens, Paine added, have battery-backup in case electrical lines go down as a storm approaches.

Also, for the first time since the Hillsboro Mennonite Breth?ren Church was destroyed by fire in March 2003, the downtown business district has a tornado shelter within close proximity. The new Hillsboro Dental Care office, located across the street from city hall, now offers that service.

The city is in the process of mapping out the placement of its electrical lines?another lesson learned from Greensburg.

?Right now it?s not mapped adequately, and for FEMA you?ve got to see a map to say that you?ve got electric lines,? Paine said. ?The fact that you had houses there doesn?t mean there was electricity there.?

On a personal note, Paine has developed the habit of taking the laptop computer from his office with him to his home each evening after work.

?I want it where I?m at so that in a disaster event I?ve got at least something that works?and it has all my contact information in it,? he said. ?It at least gives me a heads up on trying to move past an event.?

He said the office has also begun the next step, which is to electronically copy city records for safe keeping.

?Since we?ve gotten a new photocopier, we?ve also started scanning all of our ordinances and resolutions back to a certain point so we have an electronic record of it,? he said.

Next steps

Beyond the simple things, Paine said he is working to strengthen the city?s post-storm response procedures. Later this year, he hopes to initiate a citywide exercise that gives the local plan a practice run.

?We are going to start the exercise process of presuming there is a disaster,? he said. ?Then we test our systems to make sure we?ve got at least some beginning issues down on how to respondt.?

Paine wants to include Tabor College, the public schools and Hillsboro Com?munity Medical Center in the exercise.

?At least you?ve got everybody together and starting out on the same page, so there?s a sense that we know where we?re going and how we?re going to work,? he said.

?Then, once (a disaster) happens, you kind of sit back and let the people who are responsible for those various areas do the things they need to do.?

Unexpected training

Paine said city crews learned some valuable response lessons in the wake of the ice storms that hit Hillsboro this winter.

?I was pretty impressed with the way the electric people went about dealing with their issues,? Paine said. ?Gary (Andrews) came in off the golf course and ran triage. He knows what the guys need to know about where to go and how to deal with that sort of stuff. He did a great job for them, and that made them more effective.

?Right now, I would point to that sort of preparedness as being an advantage that Hills?boro has right now.

?All of our crews responded very well in this ice storm,? he added. ?That gave me a greater level of confidence in their abilities to get things done.?

Another lesson learned following the ice storm was the importance of mutual-aid relationships in recovery situations.

Hillsboro is part of the Kan?sas Municipal Energy Agency?s mutual-aid program, where cities commit to help neighboring towns once their own immediate needs are met.

Paine said he saw that theory at work during the ice storm. Flint Hills Rural Cooperative made it a priority to ensure electrical service to Hillsboro?s water-pumping station at the reservoir. In turn, city crews helped Flint Hills get its rural customers back on line once the city?s urgent needs were met.

?It?s something Hillsboro is a part of because it just makes sense,? Paine said of mutual-aid arrangements. ?We can help our neighbors get their systems up and going and they will appreciate that. At some point, we might need that help back.

?It?s always nice to be in the giving mode first before you have to be on the receiving side.?

Inherent limits

Paine said he knows preparation efforts can only go so far.

?The real issue I haven?t been able to solve yet is where our disaster operation center would be located,? he cited as an example, ?If this building is toast, where do you go?

?You kind of have to make some of that stuff up on the fly.

?Disasters manage themselves,? he added. ?It?s kind of like rafting a river. The river?s going to go downstream regardless. It depends on how you ride the raft whether you get really wet or just wet.?

2007 Kansas Tornado Facts

Number: 137 (The 1950-2007 average is 57)

Deaths: 14 (sixth highest total in one year since 1950)

Injuries: 82

Longest track: 34 miles (Sher?man-Cheyenne counties, March 28)

Strongest: EF5 (Greensburg, May 4)

Most in a county: 11 (Stafford)

Days of occurrence: 22

Most in one day: 36 (May 5)

Most in one month: 77 (May).

Record months: February (9), March (26), May (77)

First one: Feb. 23 (Meade County, 9:56 p.m. CST)

Last one: Sept. 28 (Gove County, 7:21 p.m. CDT)

When it comes to tornado safety, there is no foolproof measure that can guarantee your safety. However, by following the tips listed below, your chances of survival are greatly increased.


Before a tornado strikes:

1. Look for approaching storms which: (a) may include a dark greenish tint; (b) contain large hail; (c) produce a loud roaring noise of rushing wind.

2. Monitor NOAA Weather Radio for the latest updates


Where to go when a tornado warning has been issued for your area:

1. Indoors: Go to a pre-designated shelter area such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar or the lowest building level. If there is no basement, go to the center of an interior room on the lowest level (closet, interior hallway) away from corners, windows, doors and outside walls. Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Get under a sturdy table and use your arms to protect your head and neck. Do not open windows.

2. In a vehicle:

(a) Your first option might be driving away from the danger. Note the tornado?s direction of movement and drive at a right angle to a shelter. Never try to outrun the tornado.

(b) Otherwise, get out of your vehicle and lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands. Be aware of the potential for flooding.

(c) Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location.

3. In a trailer or mobile home: Get out immediately and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes.


If all else fails remember the word DUCK:

  • Down to the lowest level

  • Under something sturdy

  • Cover your head

  • Keep in shelter until the storm passes

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