Henderson launching ‘weather-ready’ project in wake of December storm

HENDERSON, Ky. – The devastation of a tornado that tore across Western Kentucky late on the evening of Dec. 10, 2021, can hardly be overstated.

The EF-4 twister measured more than a mile wide and remained on the ground a staggering 165 miles, packing winds estimated up to 190 mph.

Fifty-seven people lost their lives to the tornado; hundreds more were injured, some critically.

The towns of Mayfield and Dawson Springs were largely destroyed, and many other communities were severely damaged. More than 1,800 homes, businesses and other buildings were utterly destroyed or left uninhabitable. Graves County lost its 133-year-old courthouse.

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Were communities and employers as prepared as they could possibly be? Were best practices in hazard safety employed?

Probably not.

To better prepare America’s communities, the National Weather Service is partnering with the Henderson County Office of Emergency Management to launch the nation’s first pilot project to prepare a Weather-Ready Community.

“This is the first,” Derrick Snyder, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Paducah, said here last week. “It’s happening in Henderson.”

“We are really the first county” in the country to launch the program, Henderson County Emergency Management Director Kenny Garrett said.

“The initiative kind of started with the tornadoes in December,” he said.

Henderson County, which escaped those tornadoes, is fairly uniquely situated to work to become the first Weather-Ready Community. Henderson lies within the warning area of the National Weather Service’s Paducah office, which tracked and later investigated the three tornadoes that were part of that superstorm.

Kenny Garrett (center right), director of the Henderson County Office of Emergency Management, speaks to a crowd of employees and community members outside the headquarters of Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group on July 8. The company had been designated as a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador as part of a national pilot project to have Henderson County certified as a National Weather Service Weather-Ready Community.

Moreover, Henderson County Emergency Management now has on its staff retired National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Troutman, the newly appointed deputy director of weather preparedness. Troutman has 34 years of experience involving public safety and preparedness, including public warnings.

“They asked us to work on their new program so it can be rolled out to the rest of the nation,” Garrett said.

An early step was to visit three local employers — Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group (PTTG), the Henderson County Public Library and the AMG Aluminum North America plant near Robards — to assess their buildings and identify the best places “where people can hunker down” Garrett said.

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Further, Emergency Management instructed those organizations to secure “at least four ways to receive (official weather) warnings” — such as by having multiple emergency weather radios around their buildings — “and at least four ways to disseminate warnings” such as through text messages, email, phone trees and other methods, Troutman said.

“Backups to backups to backups,” as he puts it, “to get as much head’s up to get to a safe place as possible.”

It’s also about becoming better informed and prepared, such as knowing “what to do when a watch is in effect and what to do when there’s a warning,” he said.

“Weather warnings don’t do much if you don’t take action,” Snyder said.

It’s also crucial to “have a robust emergency operations plan, conduct safety training sessions and exercises, and have a robust sheltering plan,” as he tweeted later.

“We just want to make sure we can do everything we can to keep your people safe,” Garrett told staff at PTTG.

“We thank you for this partnership with you,” Eric Gardner, PTTG’s vice president of risk management, replied. “We know potentially in the future this could save lives and protect property.”

Last week, PTTG, the library and AMG were declared Weather-Ready Nation Ambassadors, an initiative intended to encourage organizations and employers to take a proactive approach to improve local hazardous-weather operations and public awareness and safety.

But officials emphasized that those designations is just a start.

Going forward, “We’ll work across the county and work with other organizations,” Troutman said during a ceremony at the library.

Since launching after a flurry of tornadoes in the region in the spring of 2011, he said the Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador program “for many years had become a passive program,” Snyder said at the same ceremony. “This is kind of taking it to the next level. We’re going to work with organizations and help them find ways to keep people safe.”

As part of this pilot project, “We’re working to get a way we can do needs assessments,” Troutman said.

The pilot program here “will probably be a year-long development process at a minimum,” Garrett said.  What’s learned and developed here will be shared with other communities around the country.

Emergency Management is taking new measures to make itself better prepared as well. “(Library Director) Shannon (Sandefur) and I are working up an agreement for when we have that bad day to have a backup emergency center” at the library, Garrett said.

“In our area, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’” tornadoes will strike," Troutman said. “It can happen year round.”

This article originally appeared on Henderson Gleaner: Henderson launching ‘weather-ready’ project in wake of December storm