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Tina Casey headshot

As Tornado Risks Grow, Emergency Planning Takes Center Stage

Many lessons have yet to be learned about survivability and resilience after a tornado as extreme weather becomes more common in the age of climate change.
By Tina Casey

An aerial view of the city of Mayfield, Kentucky, on December 12, 2021

In May of 2007, a powerful tornado destroyed the entire city of Greensburg, Kansas, killing 13 people. It was a terrible loss for a community of only 1,400. The surviving residents chose to stay and rebuild, with sustainability and resiliency as priorities. Their decision has provided businesses with a blueprint for green building and construction. However, there are still many lessons yet to be learned about survivability and resilience as extreme weather becomes more commonplace in the age of climate change.

Building back greener

The tornado that struck Greensburg destroyed almost every building in town, forcing many residents to relocate. However, others chose to stay. They coalesced around a proposal to reconstruct their town as a “model green community.” The area’s history in sod house construction may have helped promote the idea of a sustainable, energy-efficient community.

In 2013, USA Today revisited Greensburg and found town reborn as “the world's leading community in LEED-certified buildings per capita,” including Bucklin Tractor and Implement, the local John Deere dealership.

The role of public funding

Public financial resources played a significant role in the city’s green recovery, partly due to the its status as a county seat with an airport, hospital and other buildings eligible for assistance.

The U.S. Department of Energy provided expert guidance on renewable energy as well as LEED standards, and the Department of Agriculture financed a 12.5 megawatt wind farm for the city.

The population of Greensburg remains at approximately half its 2007 level, and its economic recovery has been hampered by the same factors besetting other rural communities. Still, the town’s green reconstruction is considered a success, and the city continues to promote its sustainability profile with the slogan, “Stronger, Better, Greener.”

The city hall at Greensburg, KS, built to be LEED-certified after a tornado destroyed the town in 2007
The city hall at Greensburg, KS, built to be LEED-certified after a tornado destroyed the town in 2007

Building to survive the next tornado

Greensburg’s efforts to build tornado survivability into its infrastructure have received much less attention, but the risk of future tornados was in mind during the rebuild.

The first “eco-home” built in the city, for example, was designed to withstand winds of up to 240 mph, and the new LEED buildings incorporate structural elements that improve tornado survivability as well as energy efficiency.

The science of tornado-proof building continues to develop. Meanwhile, though, communities in tornado-prone areas are still at risk, and the risk will grow as the warming climate increases the chance of extreme weather.

What businesses can do

Tornado-proofing an entire building is beyond the capacity of many employers. Retrofitting safe spaces into existing buildings is more realistic. However, the experts advise that a safe space is practically useless without a plan for access during an emergency, and there are many other steps employers need to take in order to protect their employees and others on site.

The devastating tornados that struck last week in Kentucky and several other states have drawn renewed attention to the responsibility of employers during extreme weather. Several fatalities were concentrated in an Amazon warehouse in Illinois. Another cluster occurred within a candle factory in Kentucky.

While the details of those two episodes have yet to be confirmed, early reports indicate the lack of an effective tornado response plan.

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If true, that is a critical lapse without much excuse. Tornado response has been studied extensively, and that knowledge base is reflected in a simple brochure on individual tornado safety produced by NOAA and the National Weather Service.

“Most deaths and injuries happen to people who are unaware and uninformed,” the agencies write, emphasizing the importance of paying attention to weather reports, developing a plan of action that includes access to adequate shelter, and holding frequent practice drills.

In light of the brochure’s advice, some employers may especially need to reconsider restrictions on access to personal smart phones at work.

“Be sure your mobile device is set up to receive warnings,” the brochure advises. “Allow location access to pinpoint if you are in the path of a storm or in a warning.”

A case study for survivability

In 2013, researchers analyzed the impact of a 2004 tornado that completely demolished Parsons Manufacturing, a rural factory in Illinois. All 150 people survived with just a handful of minor injuries. The episode provided tornado safety advocates with hard evidence that many tornado deaths are avoidable if employers plan ahead and make the necessary investments.

The researchers distilled lessons learned from the Parsons factory into four areas: planning, practicing/preparing, monitoring and acting.

They emphasized that planners need to account for the manner in which people respond to warnings. Hearing a warning is just the first step in a thought process that leads to understanding the warning, believing it, personalizing it, confirming its validity and finally, deciding to act.

That final decision will be difficult if not impossible to achieve in a workplace that fails to plan, fails to practice, fails to establish access to a safe space — and above all, fails to establish trust with its workers.

One key way in which to establish trust is to provide workers with hard evidence that an emergency plan exists by having them drill it. Even a tabletop exercise can make a difference.

“Having a detailed emergency action plan is not enough. Participants in the plan must practice sheltering, or evacuation procedures for the plan to succeed,” they write, adding that “the educational background and demographics of the community play a major role in the public’s understanding of a warning.”

Although the planning stage can take months if not years, the researchers also note that swift, timely communication is critical once such a warning sounds.

“The people receiving the warning information must be monitoring some type of mass media device (e.g. television, weather radio, computer, pager, phone system, etc...) for the message to be received,” they observe, mirroring the guidance in the NOAA brochure.

“Failing to follow this important step will greatly minimize the amount of time the public has to react to the threat,” they emphasize.

The role of leadership

There is a personal backstory to the success of the Parsons response. The plant owner, Bob Parsons, had witnessed a tornado years earlier. At the time, he was employed in a business with no plan and no shelter. The experience made a powerful impression on him. He built his factory in 1975 with a reinforced concrete block restroom designated for shelter. By the time the tornado struck in 2004, the facility had established a formal safety plan overseen by an emergency response team, and a total of three shelters were on site.

Tornado planning is not rocket science. A number of leading employers, most notably Waffle House, have established a solid track record in disaster planning. There is no need for other employers to reinvent the wheel in order to cut the risk of death during a tornado.

Leadership in planning and preparation is the key, and that begins at the top.

As corporate leaders reap media attention for piling onto the sustainability trend, paying attention to workplace safety, worker rights and survivability is just as important.

Image credits: State Farm via Wiki Commons; City of Greensburg, Kansas via Facebook

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey