Years of emergency training and advance planning paid off Saturday night when strong thunderstorms lashed the Washington Fairgrounds, forcing cancellation of that night’s events and evacuation of Fair patrons, officials said.
Only one person, a woman, was injured during the evacuation. She suffered an abrasion to her arm when a tent pole fell, said Terry Buddemeyer, Washington Area Ambulance District chief. It was not a serious injury, he noted.
The fact that close to 12,000 fairgoers were evacuated from the grounds in under an hour, with only one minor injury, was “reflective” of the ongoing training and planning, said Police Chief Ken Hahn. “It was a collective effort,” he said, among Fair Board members, emergency personnel, city workers and volunteers.
“The Fair Board did what was needed to keep the people safe,” Hahn said.
Washington Fire Chief Bill Halmich, who also serves as the city emergency management director, said the key to the successful operation was the years of prior planning and training by Fair Board members, emergency personnel and city department heads under the NIMS (National Incident Management System) program.
“For 16 years the Fair Board has demonstrated foresight in safety planning and execution,” Halmich said.
Another key factor in Saturday night’s emergency was the advance warning officials here had thanks to a relatively new Decision Support Service provided through the National Weather Service, Halmich noted.
“They provided first-hand, immediate information on weather conditions specifically at the fairgrounds,” Halmich explained.
“Friday afternoon I got an e-mail telling us to watch the radar very closely because their computers were projecting the possibility of severe weather over Washington Saturday evening and night,” Halmich said.
He said he began watching the radar at the city’s Public Safety Building about 5:30 p.m. Saturday and saw thunderstorms popping up to the south, “which was not a threat for us.”
About 6 p.m. the emergency operations center here established a link with National Weather Service forecasters who were watching a weather system building over Washington. To the west, they noticed a stronger storm building in Gasconade County and heading east at 24 miles an hour, Halmich said.
Halmich said he notified the Fair Board which activated the unified command center about 8 p.m., bringing in Fair officials, local government leaders including the mayor and some city council members, emergency services personnel and city department employees.
Based on the timing of the approaching storm to the west, which was intensifying, the decision was made to evacuate patrons from the grounds, Halmich noted. They then “kicked in” the severe weather event plan, he said.
“The majority of the people were off the grounds and on their way home when the major storm hit,” Halmich said. “Fortunately, the plan worked. The Fair Board not only heeded the information but they acted appropriately to address the situation.
“The key thing was we were activating the plan prior to the National Weather Service issuing the severe weather warning. When the EOC reported 60 mph winds everyone was off the grounds or in appropriate shelters,” Halmich noted.
“It was invaluable that we could talk directly to the National Weather Service,” he added.
After the major storm passed, the Fair Board went into recovery mode and held a “hot wash” meeting to discuss how the event was handled and what needed to be done to open the Fair on Sunday. The decision was made to open the grounds by noon.
“It was very impressive how they went from evacuation to recovery mode,” Buddemeyer remarked.
Hahn said he is very “proud” of how his officers performed during the situation. He also had praise for county deputies, Missouri Highway Patrol troopers and other emergency workers who responded to assist in the evacuation.
“We did the best we could and it was pretty darn good,” Hahn said Tuesday.
Buddemeyer said since there weren’t many injuries, WAAD personnel assisted with the evacuation process.
“It definitely went as good as it could go,” Buddemeyer remarked.
Halmich said an added challenge during the storm was the fact that AT&T did not set up a mobile tower near Grand Avenue as it has in past years which resulted in “very limited” cellphone service in the area.
That resulted in a lot of 911 calls from parents who had dropped off children at the Fair but couldn’t reach them by phone during the storm.
About 60 children were rounded up and taken to the Home Ec building for shelter. After a time, parents were notified and told that they could drive onto the grounds to pick up their children, Halmich explained
Halmich noted that following the major storm, firefighters responded to 26 calls for various incidents ranging from downed power lines to fallen limbs and other wind damage.
There were no serious injuries or damage reported from the storm.
Halmich said firefighters manned all fire stations and requested Union and Marthasville fire districts to stand by in case mutual aid was needed, but they were not needed.
“All calls were promptly answered and there were no problems,” he said.