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Stop and Go in the post disaster environment

Prepare for another product blog.

Malfunctioning traffic lights occur for a number of reasons but in my world, it is because of the weather. In the event of a hurricane, derecho or tornado, there is bound to be issues with traffic signals. We usually don’t think much about it, and for those of us that do, there is a general assumption that this will be immediately dealt with by our road crew or public utilities.

You know what happens when we assume.

For those of you that have never had the pleasure of managing a major disaster, this is really for you, but for those of you that have already experienced this, you may find some helpful tips and information for next time…

A massive thunderstorm has brought 85 MPH winds to your community. Power is out due to downed trees and the electric company is saying that the situation could last well into mid-morning tomorrow. This is a relatively dangerous situation but at least the expectation is positive and we need only to position a law enforcement officer at the intersection, right? Wrong.

First of all, how many intersections are we talking about? How many officers do we have that we can afford due to the number of incoming 911 calls in the wake of the storm? Is it still pouring down rain? Is more expected? How safe is the officer going to be at a pitch-black intersection?

We are all supposed to know the rules. If a traffic signal light is not working, you must: A. Stop, then proceed when safe. B. Stop before entering the intersection and let all other traffic go first. C. Slow down or stop, only if necessary.

We all know that is going to become a cluster pretty quick since everyone is out driving around looking at storm damage and taking videos and pictures. We also have numerous emergency and utility vehicles out and about. The reality is that the next twelve hours is going to be difficult and we could see real injuries if not deaths if we do not manage the intersections.

So we used a thunderstorm with 80MPH winds, but let’s go back to my “go-to” lesson-teacher of all time. Joplin, Missouri.

On May 22, 2011, an EF5 tornado tore through a major portion of the city of Joplin, Missouri leveling homes, mangling power lines and snapping utility poles. Winds in excess of 250 mph inflicted catastrophic damage on all of Empire District Electric Company’s infrastructure. The twister obliterated more than 4,000 poles, damaged 100 miles of power lines, and completely destroyed a substation.

The tornado hit the city at 5:41 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, and spun forcefully on the ground for 32 minutes. Following the tornado, wood and steel poles were broken off and strewn in every direction, and transformers and pad-mount gear were ripped away from their pedestals.

An enormous amount of debris covered every road and street in the area.

Electric, unlike other commodities, cannot just be brought in from another town. You can spill diesel and go get another can. When you are disconnected to this magnitude, the situation becomes very real, very fast and can last for a long time.

American’s have their little quirks and one of them I witness in large ice storms and blizzards. The moment the power goes out they grab their phones and go their local utility company app to find out how long they will be thrust into the 1800’s. After a Joplin tornado, they will not like the answer.

As residents tried to seek medical attention or find their loved ones, the roads became increasingly congested. Compounding the problem, the streets were covered with debris and sharp objects. As a result, it was difficult for the first responders to travel on the roads without getting a flat tire. The utility company did its part to remove debris to make the streets passable for both the work crews and the local residents, but because of this necessary effort, they were not working on the restoration of power. In other words, you have to get to the problem to take care of the problem.

The communications systems had suffered damage, so Empire could not even contact their workers on their cellular phones. Many of their employees lived in and around Joplin making contact even more difficult as the employees they needed were in their own situations across the city.

Thankfully, most of the linemen took the initiative to come in on their own rather than waiting to be called in for storm duty. Engineers and electricians from all eight of the utility's different geographical areas also came in to help.

Here are some of the unsung heroes of that night. Although many of the employees were affected personally by the tornado, they recognized the severity of the damage, and they knew they needed to be involved in the reconstruction effort.

The storm took down many of the local circuits, and while Joplin was the largest city affected by the storm, it also impacted other suburbs to the east, such as Duquesne, Missouri. The primary focus, in the beginning, was safety. The field crews ensured that the energized lines laying on the ground were made safe.

And this ate more time.

On the first night, the utility also worked to restore service to critical facilities. The tornado completely destroyed St. John's Hospital, but the other large hospital, Freeman Hospital, was still standing but had lost power. The linemen focused on restoring power to that building as well as to the city water and sewer installations.

The utility's outage management system from Integraph allows quick assessments of damage for timely response during most outage situations. However, the magnitude of this storm was so great that the system was not usable and employees had to rely on field inspections.

And so more time was eaten.

In an example of efficiency, proficiency and professionalism, Empire looked to partnerships and created a management team that attacked the problem immediately.

The utility brought in contractors such as BBC, Bison and B&L. Plus, the company called in extra crews from contractors that regularly do work on Empire's system such as PAR Electrical Contractors, Mid Central Contractors and Kenny Singer Construction. Other partners such as Wright Tree Service, ACRT and Shade Tree also sent additional resources to assist with vegetation management.

Because of all of the workers focused on the restoration, Empire's employees faced a Herculean task when it came to finding shelter and food for the crews, who were working 16-hour days. This task was made even more challenging as so many residents were displaced and needed to find a place to stay. Thankfully, the utility had already experienced other severe weather events, so it had a time-tested emergency response plan in place.

The employees quickly secured hotel rooms, arranged for meals to be delivered into the field and scheduled laundry pickup for the work crews. At the end of the work day, Empire sent its employees out into the field to pick up the dirty laundry, get it cleaned and then bring it back the next day.

After Empire got all of its resources together, it then focused on delivering materials to the workers in the field; for this, Empire relied on its Alliance Partner, Irby, which pulled supplies together and made round-the-clock deliveries.

While this was an amazing and historic response by a company that knew what to do because of planning, many things in the city did not change because even the fastest response takes time.

The congested traffic situation went on for many days after the event started, and because there were no traffic signals, police officers helped to direct traffic. In the devastated area, it could take up to three hours for the utility drivers to make a 3-mile round trip to the main storeroom to get supplies.

And more time was eaten.

With the materials on hand, the linemen began restoration. Poles then wire.

Perhaps by now you get the picture, but I can tell you that in late July I remember standing in the center of Joplin wondering when traffic lights and street lights would be working again. After two months we were still stacking debris for pick-up by FEMA contractors and still navigating streets without signals.

By March the following year a major amount of infrastructure was in place and a bulk of the overhead lines had been reconstructed.

Approximately 4.25 square miles of densely populated area was destroyed, including 7,000 structures damaged, 4,000 homes destroyed or uninhabitable and 18,000 vehicles wrecked. FEMA estimated that more than 3 million cubic yards of storm debris was removed. No wonder the traffic lights weren’t working.

But was there a solution? Was there a way that we could have greased the traffic flow saving utility workers and responders time?

Maybe not at the time, but if you are like me, you want to have that life preserver BEFORE you get in the water so here it is…

As you can see, the flow of traffic is what can sometimes determine how fast other needs are met throughout a disaster-stricken town. There are several options including placing law enforcement at intersections but that can quickly deplete needed man-power. There is, of course, rental traffic lights available from construction rental places but how fast can you access those? What is the delivery time? What if the disaster has struck the entire area and you are not first in line for those rentals?

Several years ago FoxFury Lighting Solutions began to make a light they called the Nomad Prime. This telescoping tripod light stands at 8 feet with a single oscillating head and offers 5600 lumens without any cords. This rechargeable light is waterproof, sturdy, and easy to move, withstands high winds and weighs only 18 pounds, and can literally be set up in under 10 seconds. With up to 24 hours of run time on a single charge, this light has proven itself worldwide to be one of the smartest solutions FoxFury has ever come up with.

This light has four modes, low, medium, high, and strobe, and comes with a diffuser lens and that lens was the beginning of the solution for traffic woes.

After creating the light, which was already about as perfect as it could get, the company released extra lenses for the light; one amber and one red.

Now everything changes.

Within minutes of a tornado striking your downtown area, you can place Nomad Primes at crucial and dangerous intersections to create 4-way yields, 4-way stops or 2-way stops with yields.

Whether your power will be down for a day or weeks, this solution quickly pays for itself when rental on portable traffic signals are running in excess of $500 per day when there is no increased demand.

Recessed in the bottom of the Nomad Prime is a chain and carabiner system that allows you to sandbag and secure the light at its location. Lights can be removed and relocated with ease on the back of an ATV or even in a small car.

Run your new traffic system all night and swap out with another set to allow for recharging so you can run them all day.

We are in a business where certain words mean more to us than to the general public. We take words like IMMEDIATE, EFFECTIVE AND EFFICIENT quite seriously. This solution is all of those and more.

So what if I have no need for traffic control, have I wasted my money?

Absolutely not. There is no more effective tool than the Nomad Prime for operations such as search & rescue, recovery lighting, investigations, parking lot illumination and more. Without the diffusers, this light offers a one-mile beam of light and is capable of taking hard hits, drops, complete submersion and even decon treatments.

With the efforts highlighted in the news these past few weeks, the potential for more severe weather and the special events coming at us all summer, now is the time to start thinking beyond what we know and looking into solutions that are literally standing right there.

I have created some application diagrams for you all to see and you can always visit my friends at FoxFury by clicking here:

An easy 4-way stop can be set up in less than 5 minutes!

Sometimes you just need more alertness at an intersection.

2-way stop with 2-way yield

Odd intersections are easily handled in minutes

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