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Projections: EF5 tornado in Janesville would kill hundreds

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Neil Johnson
May 22, 2013

— If a tornado as powerful as the one that struck Moore, Okla., on Monday ever tore through Janesville, it likely would kill more than 200 people and injure 4,000 more.

It would leave as many as 3,000 people with severely damaged or leveled homes and destroy as many as 500 businesses.

Those estimates come from situational tornado models crafted by Rusty Kapela, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Sullivan. It’s a hypothetical scenario that Kapela said is much less likely to happen in southern Wisconsin than in the southern Great Plains states known collectively as Tornado Alley.

Nevertheless, it’s terrifying to envision the specter of a tornado flattening neighborhoods and business districts in Janesville, wiping out great swaths of trees along the Rock River bluffs and leaving area trauma hospitals with their roofs torn away.

The toll of an EF4 or EF5 tornado, like those that hit Moore on Monday and Joplin, Mo., on May, 11 2011, would leave a city the size of Janesville struggling to give emergency care to those wounded in a maelstrom with 200 mph winds.

Those already hospitalized for other reasons would be at risk.

Firefighters would struggle to handle the grim tasks of unearthing whole families and even pets. The threat of burglaries and looting would stretch police forces to their limits.

The damage would take up to a year to repair and cost as much as $1 billion, Kapela estimated.

“It would not be pretty,” Kapela said.

It’s scary to think about and certainly unlikely, but tornadoes like the mile-wide beast that reduced parts of Moore to flinders are not unheard of in Wisconsin. In fact, there have been six such twisters—ones classified as EF4 and EF5 tornadoes—that have hit Wisconsin in the last 130 years, according to National Weather Service records.

The most recent EF5 tornadoes were in Oakfield in July 1996 and in Barneveld on June 8, 1984. The Barneveld tornado, perhaps the more severe of the two, killed nine people and injured 200, according to records.

“When something that violent hits, sometimes it’s just not enough to be in your basement. You’re not safe anywhere,” Kapela said.

That’s a sobering thought, yet in places such as schools and hospitals where large numbers of workers, children and the vulnerable and infirm are gathered, officials in charge of safety must have emergency action plans in place.

Tornado drills

Milton West Elementary Principal Dan Grady said he and teachers shuddered Tuesday talking about students being trapped and presumably killed in Moore as unearthly winds tore apart two elementary schools there.

“I’ll bet the teachers and kids did a fantastic job. They did everything right, but there were issues that they couldn’t control … they couldn’t overcome,” Grady said.

Grady said school staff in Milton are drilled that by the time the district receives a tornado warning on school emergency radios—or worse, when there is a report of a nearby funnel cloud moving along the ground—time is critical.

“I haven’t timed a tornado evacuation procedure yet. It takes longer than a minute,” Grady said. “It’s different than a fire drill where you’re getting people outside and there’s no placement of students next to each other.”

At West, where there is no basement, students are taken into bathrooms and rooms with windowless, interior walls.

Meanwhile, emergency robo-calls go out to parents and to school busing officials to alert any buses that might have students riding.

Milton East Elementary School principal Jennifer Cramer said she remembers the last time Milton schools had an active tornado warning. She said it was on a balmy spring afternoon five or six years ago.

At East, where there is a basement, the students—all 350 of them—are led below by teachers.

As is the case in all Milton schools, teachers bring flashlights, a medical kit and a list of all students in attendance in their classes. Although schools might have different layouts and protocols, all schools in Rock County run drills twice a year as required by state law.

During the most recent tornado warning, teachers kept students in the basement well after the regular school day until the weather threat passed, Cramer said. During such events, signs are placed on the doors directing parents to the basement if they want to get their children.

That way, Cramer said, for better or for worse—and in the event of a partial building collapse—all students are in one place under the watch of school staff trained to deal with emergencies.

Plan for the worst

Janesville St. Mary’s Hospital spokeswoman Joan Neeno said the hospital is monitoring the aftermath of the Moore tornado for lessons the Janesville facility can learn but also because one of its sister hospitals, another SSM Health Care affiliate near Moore, is being impacted.

Neeno said SSM St. Anthony Hospital is in Shawnee, Okla. The hospital was treating 35 patients injured Monday in the Moore twister, and more were expected. Meanwhile, some staff at St. Anthony who live in Moore have lost their homes.

The Oklahoma hospital cannot get water to the upper floors, Neeno said, because of low water pressure. She said fresh water is being trucked in.

“We’re watching Moore very closely in a lot of ways,” Neeno said.

Neeno said St. Mary’s in Janesville follows emergency guidelines similar to all hospitals during tornado threats.

When the hospital learns of a tornado warning, it begins to move patients and staff to secure areas of the building. Those patients who can’t be moved safely are covered with blankets and attended by staff to protect them from flying debris if a tornado hits, she said.

Meanwhile, during a tornado and in its aftermath, Neeno said the hospital could power itself and supply its own fresh water for about three days.

In the worst-case scenario, such as in Joplin, where a hospital in 2011 lost part of its roof to a tornado, Neeno said St. Mary’s has designated areas to move people.

And in the worst of all scenarios—a direct tornado hit to Janesville—Neeno said the hospital would mobilize a plan to triage and house injured people and their families in practically every secure space in the hospital.

At that point, she said, all hospitals, police and emergency agencies in the area would be forming an action plan based on protocols in place to act as one giant emergency response corps to ensure that help finds anyone who needs it.

Such a catastrophe is almost unthinkable, Neeno said, but the plan is to be ready.

“At a certain point, you have no choice but to draw on all your partnerships—a total communitywide approach. It has to be,” Neeno said.



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