As if pandemic, economic hardships, political discord and social unrest weren’t enough this past year, some rural areas have also dealt with tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, drought, record heat, record wind, wildfires, blizzards, extreme cold and ice in unexpected places like Texas. It’s like Mother Nature said, “If you think that’s bad, let me really give you something to cry about.”
For my community in rural northern Wisconsin, it happened the other way around: We were hit by a derecho, a devastating wind storm, in July 2019. When 2020 happened, it added new problems on top of the storm aftermath. So we might not have shared as much as we could that we learned from the experience and our after-action reviews and analysis. Better late than never, I suppose. Here are some things we learned that might help other rural communities, and I hope others add their experiences so we might all benefit.
Have a Plan
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for rural areas impacted by natural disasters and whatever else is going on, too. Nevertheless, local governments of all sizes are expected to develop and maintain emergency management plans. A plan provides a starting point for tailoring solutions to needs as they emerge. How does a rural community form such a plan? Here in northern Wisconsin, my township clerk received a template from the county Emergency Manager (EM) to jump-start the process. It contained things like action checklists, State of Emergency declaration resolution and proclamation templates, and a uniform state disaster situation report form. It also called for things like a debris management plan and phone numbers and email addresses for local government officials, Fire and EMS chiefs, and disaster services.
Keep Your Plan Up-to-Date
This is critical. The EM who guided us through our disaster was just days into the position when everything hit the fan. That’s not a good time to have outdated contact information for local government officials. Note to rural leaders: Don’t blame your EM if they can’t notify you of helpful meetings and services because you didn’t keep your plan updated.
Texting Is Critical
You might be surprised how many rural leaders get away without being able to send and receive texts. But in a disaster, texting may be the most reliable technology available for notifications about meetings, resource availability, situation reports, even weather alerts. If you accept a local office, you should accept the responsibility to be reachable by text under most circumstances. And if you live in an area with limited access, texting might be your best bet for letting others know you can’t get out. Around 48 hours after our storm, I got a text from a friend in that situation. It started with, “I know the fire department must be very busy, so no rush.” She assured me the people in her area were okay, but neighbors had done all they could with chainsaws. Heavy equipment would be needed to clear a lane on their road. It took a logging processor and a couple more more days to reach them. In the meantime, we were able to check in with each other periodically via text.
Expect to Be in the Dark
Extended, widespread power outages are a given, but that’s not what I mean here. The greater challenge is that no one can see the big picture. It takes time for information to be relayed and assimilated. We knew our storm was a doozy but didn’t realize at first that it was a disaster. We were aware from radio traffic that area fire departments, including those on our MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) plans, were also responding to calls for downed power lines and trees blocking roads. But we had no clear picture of how extensive the damage was. Even from my assignment on traffic control where power lines were down on and over the highway, I couldn’t picture the scenario a half mile away where firefighters ran chainsaws through the night to clear trees tangled with power lines in an effort to get to what was paged out as a possible water rescue. I did learn that power was still out south of my location when a couple on a quest for cigarettes (driving through the ditch to get around me) stopped on their return to give me an update — then drove right over that power line. We could occasionally answer a question like, “Can I get through to….” from the piecemeal information collected at traffic control. But those who expected me to share The Big Picture were disappointed: I had no clue.
Information Is Hard to Get
Our Sheriff’s Department dispatchers did an outstanding job managing the radio traffic the night of the derecho. They did it despite loss of power at their facility and despite damage and power loss to local government radio towers. In addition to calls to and from Fire and EMS, they were fielding 911 calls from residents reporting concerns and asking how long their power would be out and when their roads would be cleared. We knew they were swamped so tried to not ask them anything that wasn’t critical and immediate. However, in the after-action review we learned that our Sheriff and county EM knew the situation was bad but couldn’t get enough information to form a picture of what was needed and where. To be honest, I thought the sheriff was crazy asking us to send someone to an 8:00 am meeting halfway across the county. We had been working through the night and still hadn’t seen a power company truck or reached the road that led to the lake with the reported missing persons. But that meeting was what it took for the county-level team to put together enough information to know what resources we needed and start looking for ways to get them. We know now that our Fire and EMS must do better at providing situation reports to the county level, and that those reports need to go through the EM. That may not be easy. In general, our radio communication problems are not much improved from when I wrote this in 2014. When Dispatch is overwhelmed, landlines are out and cell towers are damaged, there may not be much alternative to pulling a first responder from the scene to go report on the situation in person.
Paperwork Is Important
Our township government officials were able to do some disaster response meetings via Skype. But that was after power was restored to much of our area. Initially, they too drove to in-person meetings. When they came back from that first one they told the fire department there was a chance we might be declared a federal disaster area and qualify for FEMA reimbursement. That meant we needed to record volunteer hours served as well as expenses. That meeting, of course, came after we had a good 48 hours and 150 people involved in our response. Our department is serious about personnel accountability (we learned a lot after a tornado hit our area in 2007). But without power, we didn’t make copies of some of our tracking sheets before turning them over to Unified Command. It made extra work for the department member who files our reports to track down records from our initial response and fill in information that was incomplete. For those of you wondering why Incident Command didn’t designate a Finances Section to do that in the first place, I say this: I don’t know how other rural disaster areas find enough people to slot into every command position and still fill crew assignments for an initial response, but am open to suggestions.
Food and Water Can’t Wait
Since our entire area was without power, it was a challenge for the Red Cross to get food to us and other area first responder units. We were beyond glad to see them when they arrived with pizzas sometime before noon, and again mid-afternoon with hot food from a restaurant more than an hour away. Without their help we would have been unable to fuel more than 100 volunteers from a MABAS strike team who reported to our incident about 18 hours into the event. But we started feeding people much earlier. Nearly 7 hours in I was relieved from my traffic control assignment by a unit from the White Lake Fire Department that had been clearing trees from the highway. I called to wake my neighbor and she met me at her gas station where, using flashlights, we stripped the shelves. Another volunteer and I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and headed toward the chainsaw crew to pass out food and replenish their supply of water and Gatorade. Shortly after dawn, another member arrived with food and we passed out cold meat sandwiches and cookies. I think she even had bananas, which are the gold standard in potassium-replenishing fuel. A while later, the wife and mother of two of our firefighters showed up with granola bars and a car-load of water, Gatorade, and I don’t know what else or where she got it. We were way too busy during that first 24 hours to track how much we used, but we came close to running out of water several times. Since then, we’ve made room in our station to store enough bottled water and Gatorade to get through 12 to 18 hours of a disaster response. I wish we had room for more.
EMS Will Be Stretched
We lost our volunteer ambulance service before the derecho, and at that time were still unsure what we could expect for on-scene standby from our contract with the paramedic service we now get from the county seat. While we had EMTs on the scene, with chainsaw crews working through the night and all the lines tangled in trees, we should have staged a paramedic crew that could transport to the hospital much closer. We discussed that at the scene but were reluctant to make that request, knowing it might tie up a unit needed elsewhere in what was beginning to sound like a widespread disaster. Since then we have discussed possible staging areas that could at least cut down their response time to scenes at the far edges of the service area. And we know we have to improve our situation reports so they are better able to route ambulances around impassable areas until we can reopen a lane.
It’s easy to get focused on the path ahead during a crisis. For us, that was the water rescue call that came in after the first storm. It was daylight when our people reached the point where it was impossible to chainsaw any further. So two firefighters crawled under and through a half mile of fallen timber so thick they couldn’t see each other 10 feet apart to reach the lake. The missing persons were okay (although getting them out was another challenge). Trying to reach those people was our tunnel. But it could have been anything: A heart attack or fire call would have had our people moving heaven and earth to cut a path in the dark with no idea how wide the swath of destruction was. As it was, tunnel vision didn’t seriously delay the widening of our disaster response. We needed daylight, and it wasn’t much past dawn when the Lake Team was narrowed down to the two who crawled in. Shortly after, smaller teams deployed to start welfare checks on campsites, crushed vehicles, and our most vulnerable elderly. The MABAS strike team helped us complete initial checks in the hardest-hit area by that evening, and our department conducted additional checks in a wider area over the next few days. Tunnel vision affects agencies and the media as profoundly as those on scene. News crews showed up here in 2007 when the tornado destroyed a resort (and more, but that got little coverage). In 2019, I think they got focused on tornado touchdowns elsewhere and the second derecho, which hit a more populated area. But there was very little coverage about where the most significant damage occurred in the “Double Derecho of 2019.” Finally, during our county-wide after-action review, the Wisconsin Emergency Management representative reminded those present to not get tunnel vision on wind and wildfire and be ready for flooding and more extreme weather events in general. She was right: In 2020, we were ready for increased wildland fires but instead faced record high water levels and river rescue calls.
None of my pictures come close to showing the extent of the damage our area suffered from the derecho. You literally cannot see the forest for the flattened trees. And it was dark, then there was so much to do… But take as many pictures as you can. Images that are digitally time- and geo-stamped are invaluable when it comes to situation reports, insurance claims, and disaster declarations — even to writing thank-you notes at some future date. Use the camera in your phone to photograph documents you can’t copy. And it may save you miles on the road to text a picture of a tool or resource to make sure it’s the right one. It may save someone else miles if you text a picture of a landmark. It helps to know how to change the resolution on your camera app. When power and cell service are limited, reducing the resolution can help increase what you can send and receive before your battery and data package are exhausted.
Learn for Next Time
At the county-level after-action review after our disaster, many remarked on the lack of jurisdictional protectionism: Agencies worked well together despite the challenges. We discussed ways to improve the transition to Unified Command. Like many things, that would be smoother with some practice and training when we’re not under the gun. I did hear that the National Guard gave themselves poor marks in their own after-action review, and am guessing that was related to staging and communications. Still, we were very glad for their help. The Sheriff also felt his office had room for improvement in communicating with the public, and I can see how they have worked hard to improve that since. Praise was unanimous for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources team that arrived a couple days into our disaster. That team presented a great model for how a local incident management team could work effectively with limited resources for a limited operational period. My notes say it was a Type 4 team for initial attack or first response to an incident. One of the things they did that sounds too simple was set up plywood message boards at a few area locations like my neighbor’s gas station. Information about debris removal, brush collection sites, burning restrictions, mobile brush grinding services, and more were posted on those boards. I would snap pictures with my phone and post updates to the fire department’s Facebook page to help spread the news throughout the community.
It’s about time for my department to follow up on items that might have slipped through the cracks when things shut down in 2020. For example, the Unified Command team couldn’t get a mobile repeater working that might have saved us all some gray hairs when a second storm approached about 18 hours into the incident while we had teams in areas with lots of leaning trees and other hazards. We also need to follow up on protocols for staging an ambulance closer to the scene during a widespread event. Just writing this article reminds me our fire department needs to train on opening bay doors when the power is out. And we need to let our community know that in the future we will call the EM to request a city-owned trailer pre-loaded with cones and barricades to mark downed wire hazards. I wasn’t the only one on traffic control frustrated by drive-arounds and drive-overs. I heard about one knucklehead who lifted a line so his wife could drive under. In a major event, we don’t have enough people to babysit lines that are not posing immediate threat of fire. We have to learn to place cones and barricades and move on, leaving responsibility for heeding those warnings to the community.
We’re not out of the woods from 2019. We’re grateful for rain that caused record water levels in 2020 because it kept damp debris still on the ground from the derecho. Without that moisture, 2021 may bring wildland fires we are stretched to control with local resources. Which means we also need to prepare our community to have evacuation plans and remember to take the Four Ps:
We also need to help some of our elders be better prepared for extended power outages. For example, we had several who depend on electricity for oxygen separators in their homes, and not nearly enough portable oxygen tanks to get them through until power was restored. And we need to better prepare first responders and local leaders to both spend and ration resources in ways that can meet immediate needs but leave something in the tank for the long haul. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review listed three key steps toward effectiveness when a team is running on fumes:
- understanding the difference between urgency and importance
- balancing comfort with containment
- and finding new ways to energize yourself and others.
Some rural communities will enjoy a return to normalcy, or what passes for that after 2020. But for many of us, Mother Nature will have other ideas. It’s hard enough to find people willing and able to train for and respond to garden-variety fires, motor vehicle accidents and searches — let alone disaster-level incidents. But it is true that in 2019, what didn’t kill us (and that was a miracle) made us stronger.
What about your rural community? What lessons have you learned that might help others?
Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural Langlade County, Wisconsin.