Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The bureaucrats who cried wolf

When I was a youngster…

(Oh, rats! I remember promising myself that when I got old, I would never, never utter that phrase. Sigh.)

Nevertheless, when I was a youngster way back in the 1960’s, I was fascinated by tornadoes. And quite concerned about them as well.

I think I was concerned because every thunderstorm seemed to bring on adult speculation about whether a tornado was be in the offing. The stronger the storm, it seemed, the closer many adults edged toward tornado panic. They usually tried to hide their fear and worry, but it was there for all the world – including the “younguns” – to see.

Fortunately, there was a severe weather alerting system in place. I didn’t know it at the time, but the system was fairly new. Weather alerts were issued for specific areas and localities. They were issued by regional National Weather Service meteorologists, via teletype, to local law enforcement agencies and the media. Upon receipt of an alert, law enforcement and other emergency service providers would put their response plan into action, and the media – radio and television of course – would broadcast the alert.

There were basically four alert levels. A Thunderstorm Watch meant that conditions were right for the formation of thunderstorms. A Thunderstorm Warning meant that a thunderstorm was present in the area. A Tornado Watch meant that conditions were right for a tornado to form. A Tornado Warning meant that a tornado had actually formed and was near by.

When a Thunderstorm Watch was issued, it was basically a reminder that a thunderstorm might pop up at some point, so you should keep an eye on the sky while you went about your daily business.

A Thunderstorm Warning reminded you that there was a thunderstorm present or nearby. Thunderstorms, as the language of the warning stated, can produce high winds, hail, and lightning. Though never explicitly spelled out, the message was clear. Take a close look at what the storm is doing and act accordingly. Maybe you should get yourself and your tractor out of the field. Maybe you should head your horse for the barn. Or get off the lake or the golf course or get your kids out of the swimming pool. On the other hand, perhaps the storm was passing safely clear and you could continue with whatever activity you were engaged in, keeping a close eye on the weather just in case.

A Tornado Watch meant that the weather in the area – usually including energetic thunderstorms – was conducive to tornado formation. In general, you were supposed to pay a little closer attention to the weather during a tornado watch, and be aware of the increased chance of a tornado forming.

The Tornado Warning, however, was a different kettle of fish. A Tornado Warning meant that a tornado had actually formed and been verified by a reliable observer. It was considered to be a real emergency, and with tornadoes being both unpredictable and destructive, it meant that you should take shelter immediately. In the basement. Or lacking a basement, in the strongest interior room of your house, preferably one without windows. If you lived in a mobile home, you could climb in the bathtub (which were all made of cast iron back in the day) and drag a mattress over the top of the tub. Or you could find a ditch to hunker down in.

I remember spending long, frightened minutes in dank, musty basements while tornadoes flailed about “somewhere nearby.” The experience was always too frightening to be an adventure.

But that was then.

Beginning several years ago, the rules changed. Now the National Weather Service only issues Tornado Warnings. At least in my neck of the woods. Every time there’s a thunderstorm, I get a television announcement and a reverse-911 call, saying, “The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for Kimball County. At (time, say 6:15), National Weather Service Doppler Radar identified a thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado at (location) moving (direction and speed).” There’s always a long spiel about taking precautions and an expiration time for the warning. The alerts are usually repeated every 10-15 minutes.

In my opinion, this is pretty much useless information. Worse, it’s taken all the power from the phrase Tornado Warning. People hear the phrase all the time now, pretty much whenever there are dark clouds in the sky. Human nature being what it is, tornado warning now means “dark clouds.”

Perhaps the bureaucrats who designed the “new” alert system never heard the fable of the boy who cried wolf. More likely, they are pre-defending themselves against criticism should there ever actually be a tornado.

In some sense, we’re fortunate that tornadoes developing here in the tri-state region rarely exceed F-0 or F-1 power, producing winds from about 70-112 mph. Though still quite dangerous, they generally lack the destructive force of tornadoes formed at lower elevations.

At any rate, and again, in my opinion, Big Brother has failed in his self-appointed task to protect us (first himself, then us) from everything.

So we’re on our own. Which isn’t an entirely bad thing. We still have powerful minds and good analytical skills at our disposal, and we can all do our own tornado-potential analysis with each and every storm. There’s some very good information on tornadoes available on the internet (a lot of garbage, too, so read carefully). We can all prepare ourselves and use our own initiative to protect ourselves. Just like everyone did back in the old days.

Monday, June 13, 2011


My brother Andy Evertson has been an Omaha Firefighter since the early 1990’s. In addition to fighting fires, he is a paramedic. As a highly skilled emergency responder, he is on the roster of Omaha Rapid Response, an organization which sends volunteer emergency workers to disaster areas.
 Andy just returned home from Joplin, Mo., where Omaha Rapid Response spent three days assisting victims of the May 23 tornado. The following is his e-mail report to friends and family, edited only for print style.

Near St. John’s Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo., an American flag hangs where the May 23 tornado left it, in the shattered limbs of a tree, surrounded by destruction. Surrounded also by incredible human spirit. Click on the picture for a larger image.
I went to Joplin, Mo. this weekend with a local volunteer group, Omaha Rapid Response. I'm at a loss for words as to what to say about it. We stayed at a local church and were given names and addresses of people that needed help going through their houses for personal belongings before the bulldozers plowed everything under. Mere words cannot describe what we saw. This was 3 weeks after the actual tornado and there had been considerable cleanup. It was still almost incomprehensible to the human eye. I'm still having trouble trying to reconcile the damage. It is as troubling as anything I have ever seen.

Most people had been through their houses several times already and I got the sense most were ready to move on. The ones I spoke with were mostly upbeat and incredibly stoic. I did not detect a sense of resignation, but rather a feeling that they would not be defined by this single event. Many just wanted to talk, and to a person they were grateful to be alive and acknowledged the role that God must have played in their survival.

Very few of these houses have basements due to the high water table. Most of these folks were at home when it hit. I asked over and over where they went (for shelter). They went into hallways, small closets, bathrooms, and in some cases just clung to the ground. Their houses were removed from around them save the spaces where most of them hid. We ate at a diner where the waitress said she and her husband were sleeping in their second-floor apartment and did not realize what was happening until it was upon on them. She said they laid on the floor while everything around them disappeared and they watched their car fly by. She was from Bosnia and had lived in Joplin just over a year. She said she grew up in war and had never seen anything like this. Still, she said she loved Joplin, except for the weather.

St. John’s Mercy Hospital, Joplin, Mo. The large structure on the left is the now-condemned hospital building, which was actually twisted on it’s foundation. On the right, in the parking lot, is the functioning MASH-type tent hospital which is presently being used. Click on the picture for a larger image.
The infamous hospital shown so prominently on the news was apparently rotated several inches on its foundation. It has since been fenced off; pending demolition I suppose. In a parking lot across the street they have established a new "tent" hospital with surgical suites, a functioning emergency room, and 60-plus inpatient beds. Ironically, there is another hospital only blocks away which was unscathed by the storm.

Almost as remarkable are the parts of Joplin not hit that seem oblivious to what has happened. We arrived in town around 1 a.m. and I breathed a sigh of relief because the damage did not seem to be near as bad as I thought it would be. I figured the news reports had been greatly exaggerated. Then we came across the path of destruction and passed into a world of disbelief. The maddening randomness is as hard to comprehend as the damage itself.

To be sure, it destroyed everything in its path. It is a clichéd saying after any disaster, but the mind cannot comprehend how more – many more – people were not killed. I have spent a good portion of this morning looking at aerial photos of Joplin before the tornado to try and decipher what I actually saw there. My response to this point is a very strong desire to vomit.

At this point, I frankly don't know what to say, but feel I should say something. If there is something to take away I suppose it is the resiliency of the human spirit. Like the ant pile that has been kicked in, the people go about the business of reconstructing their lives, most of them grateful that things weren't worse. I went there to help and was afraid at times that they were going to have to take time out their efforts to comfort me. The response appears to have been overwhelming. We were going to go down much sooner but they were so inundated with volunteers that it was becoming problematic.

The relief efforts we dealt with were mostly church based and were run very very well. Apparently in the south, the disaster response of churches has become a cottage industry, particularly with the Baptists. The church we stayed in had 100 beds set up and had a constant stream of volunteers filing through. They fed everybody 3 times a day through donations and still managed to have a church service on Sunday. They carried a full inventory of donated supplies and had them stacked from floor to ceiling yet were organized enough to get the right stuff to the right folks. They had truckloads of bottled water and Gatorade. They had feeding stations throughout the area, many in structures damaged by the tornado. They had health clinics where volunteers could get tetanus shots due to all the nails and other hazards. Four-wheelers regularly came down every street with water, Gatorade, and even ice cream. This was a very impressive logistical endeavor.

The federal government would do well to take some lessons. I will say local first responders did an incredible job and the first FEMA folks also did a good job not only of searching for bodies but of marking the streets and addresses. All street signs were gone after the storm and neighborhoods were virtually unrecognizable. The MASH-type hospital set up in the parking lot was up and running within 24 hours.

I heard about the Joplin tornado on the radio. I didn’t give it a lot of thought, other than to think that, thankfully, loss of life was comparatively small, given the reported destructiveness of the storm. That was about it. I’m a busy fellow, and spend most of my waking hours concerned with and working on my own projects. I’m quite egocentric, to say the least. Which is why I’m thankful to people like my brother, who not only selflessly serve others, but who have the skill to share their keen observations and insight in verbal and written form. Thanks, Brother, for snapping me out of self for a few moments.

More than wildflowers

“I like it,” said Omaha middle schooler Makayla Lieb when asked what she thought about the native shortgrass prairie and wide-open spaces of the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.

Makayla had made the long trek out from the big city with friends Faith and grace Evertson, who also live in Omaha. Grace and Faith’s Dad Andy, an Omaha Firefighter, grew up on the EJE. He brought his kids and their friend out to experience the beauty of the shortgrass prairie in spring.

City girls cool off in a stock tank June 4 during the fourth annual Wildflower Week celebration on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb. From left: Faith Evertson, Makayla Lieb, Grace Evertson, Andy Evertson, all of Omaha. Click on the picture for a larger image.
In addition to participating in the wildflower event, Andy gave the girls a comprehensive tour of the ranch and of Kimball -- including the swimming pool and Dairy Queen. Old hat for his kids, but I believe Makayla was enchanted.

Three friends from Omaha pause along a canyon wall June 4 during The fourth annual Wildflower Week celebration on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb. From left: Makayla Lieb, Faith Evertson, Grace Evertson. Click on the picture for a larger image.
The Omahan’s trip coincided with the fourth annual Kimball Wildflower Week celebration, hosted by the ranch as part of Nebraska’s state-wide Wildflower Week Celebration.

Saturday was actually a make-up event, following the rain-out on the event’s previously scheduled day, May 28.

While May 28 was cold and soggy, June 4 was just about perfect. The sky was deep and blue and clear, with hardly a cloud to be seen. A south breeze was just enough to be cooling without being bothersome. The temperature topped out in the mid-70’s.

And following a couple weeks of much needed spring rainfall, the prairie was vibrantly green and flush with colorful wildflowers.

A group of wildflower enthusiasts move along a canyon trail June 4 during the fourth annual Wildflower Week celebration on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb. Toward the back of the group is an avid reptile hunter and his trusty assistant. Click on the picture for a larger image.
Turnout for the event was a bit smaller than in recent years, due mainly to the last-minute postponement of last week’s event. From my perspective, however, the number of participants is far less important than the fact that I can share the beauty with those who don’t get to see it every day.

One participant, five year-old Aaron Gilming of rural Bushnell, Neb., came prepared to “catch a lizard.” Arriving at the ranch, he climbed down from his father’s pickup with a clear plastic reptile case. Though he didn’t manage to find a lizard, he did capture a great plains toad, which clearly pushed his day onto the success side of the ledger.

In addition to sharing the natural beauty of the ranch with everyone who attended, I was also able to talk a bit about what we do on the ranch. Though by no means comprehensive, my talk was aimed at pointing out the differences between the reality of ranching and the more commonly held ideas most people have about where their hamburger comes from.

I kept my remarks brief and too the point, though, and let the prairie and the peacefully grazing cattle tell their own story.

The smiles I saw, the joy of discovery and delight in the beauty all around – these things pushed the day on the success side of my ledger. I can’t wait to do it again next year. Stay tuned to this space for details of the 2012 – and FIFTH annual – edition of Wildflower Week on the EJE Ranch.