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Fayetteville leaders reflect on lessons learned from 2011 tornado outbreak

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Fayetteville's emergency management coordinator talks about the tornado that touched down in the city in 2011. Fayetteville's emergency management coordinator talks about the tornado that touched down in the city in 2011.

Three years after an outbreak of 28 tornadoes touched down in North Carolina, some local leaders say they learned lessons that helped improve their response to the devastation.

On April 16, 2011, the tornadoes caused the death of two dozen people including four children in a Raleigh mobile home park. They were hiding in a closet when a tree fell on their home.

A tornado that touched down from Hoke to Harnett Counties killed one person south of Linden in Cumberland County and one person south of Dunn in Harnett County.

“Power lines were down everywhere. There was a lot of debris and insulation everywhere,” recalled Mike Pate at the Reilly Road Farmers Market. “Stuff was just torn all to pieces.”

For first responders like Fayetteville’s Emergency Management Coordinator, it was a time to put response plans into action.

“There’s so much to be gained from seeing the wheels turning in the overall response machine,” explained Scott Bullard.

He said the city discovered the limit of its capacity to respond to people’s needs. For example, in regards to debris collection, Bullard said the city realized it needed a more robust contract with a debris removal service.

“We had a pre-event contract in place at the time. It just wasn’t enough,” Bullard said. “Now the ones that we’ve had vetted and bid and contracted are more than enough.”

The tornado also taught emergency response managers for the city and county that it helps to work together in the same emergency operations center. That allows them to make decisions while talking face-to-face.

Assistant Police Chief Chuck Kimble said he realized just how important it was to identify homeowners in effected neighborhoods. For example, he said officers and other city employees needed to coordinate between homeowners and building contractors to be sure the contractors had been invited into devastated neighborhoods. Homeowners also wanted to protect their properties with firearms, so it was important for officer to know who had a legitimate right to be on the property Kimble said.

That resulted in a color coding system that will likely be used if there is ever another natural disaster requiring an extended emergency response. Kimble said he also learned it helps to have decision makers on the ground in damaged areas instead of a phone call away.

“With inspections and sanitation, making sure those partners are with us [help],” Kimble explained. “Even Parks and Rec. You wouldn’t think about Parks and Rec, but somebody had to open up the rec centers.”

At the 911 call center, the tornado prompted a small change to include a piece of technology that certainly is not exclusive.

“We only got information that came in over the phone,” said the city’s 911 Communications Manager Lisa Reid. “Recently we’ve added large screen televisions that we keep on the news channels so we can get information as its happening.”

Reid said just that small improvement gives people taking calls in the 911 center a feeling of connection to the outside world during major events.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

Brandon Herring

Brandon is a North Carolina native and UNC alum who lives in Fayetteville, and covers Cumberland County and the Sandhills. Returning to North Carolina to work as a journalist is a dream come true for Brandon. More>>

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