Tornados taught area many lessons

A tornado "after action" report listed nine recommendations for improvement from the June 6 twisters - including a better warning system. Emergency Management Director David Konshok presented the report to the Hubbard County Board of Commissioner...

John and Joann Pratt's cabin
Workers place rafters on the new cabin of John and Joann Pratt on Pickerel Lake's "Point." The old cabin was demolished by a tornado. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

A tornado "after action" report listed nine recommendations for improvement from the June 6 twisters - including a better warning system.

Emergency Management Director David Konshok presented the report to the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners Wednesday.

"By and large, this was a very good response," he told the board.

"It was an unusual tornado - it was literally underneath the radar. Most of the warnings were based on ground reports."

Three tornados of varying strength claimed four homes, a turkey farm and numerous facilities. None showed up on National Weather Service radar before striking.


Because much of the damage was in forested lands, the county didn't qualify for state or federal disaster aid, Konshok said.

"This was a tree-moving exercise in large measure," he said.

The report suggested staffing the 911 dispatch center with two people at all times, a mass paging system for emergency responders, an updated public warning plan and countywide tornado sirens.

Only one dispatcher was on duty when the three tornados struck. Normally there are two when personnel can be scheduled and budgets allow.

Because both the sheriff and police chief were out chasing the storms to report their trajectory to the dispatch center, many residents complained that the warning system was inadequate.

Residents heard about the tornados after they'd passed through the region.

One radio station does have the Emergency Alert System, but the dispatch center can't connect to it. Those systems get warnings directly from the National Weather Service in times of emergency, much like weather radios do.

The report also indicated that the 911 phone lines were overloaded when calls from alarmed residents came in during the "golden hour" - the 60 minutes following the initial storm reports. Establishing a rollover system to another phone line would be the solution, Konshok suggested.


Countywide sirens tied into a central warning point was another recommendation. The report advised conducting an assessment of current sirens to determine where new ones should be located.

The lack of sirens, and an inability to hear the ones that were functioning that day, were among the most vocal complaints Hubbard County residents lodged in the aftermath.

"We've never had great coverage in our four sirens," Konshok said of the alarms in Park Rapids, Nevis, Akeley and Laporte. "They're not designed as interior warning systems."

And, because the county radio system transmitter was knocked off the air by lightning or wind, emergency personnel couldn't communicate with each other. Although they were able to access other frequencies to communicate, it resulted in several minutes of "dead airtime... at a critical point in the warning cycle," the report stated.

Redundancy is the only way to avoid these problems in the future, Konshok recommended. Having duplicate repeaters, multiple towers and communications systems will be costly, but necessary, he suggested.

Ironically, the Sheriff's department presented a $3,300 bill to commissioners Wednesday for recent lightning damage to its repeater antenna. Insurance funds will cover that damage.

Commissioners wondered if tower antennas could ever be weatherproofed to protect against storms.

"Generally it takes a disaster to make things happen," said Hubbard County board chair Cal Johannsen.


But commissioners also cited the dim economic conditions and lack of money to make many of the expensive changes recommended.

And the report recommended designating a public information officer for disasters and emergencies to handle the media calls. On June 6, Konshok, who might have been the likely candidate that day, was out of the state at an emergency training seminar.

Finally, the report stresses the need for continuous training, especially incident command training, to streamline the response.

"If everything went off without a hitch they wouldn't call it a disaster," Johannsen said.

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