Beat the Clock

Beat the Clock: Storm Prep When There's Little Warning

Storms can strike with very little advance notice. In fact, the lead time for tornado warnings is an average of only 13 minutes.1 Consider that: In the time it takes to make a sandwich or take a shower, the weather can change dramatically, with entire community blocks, miles of power lines, or critical buildings wiped out.

So how should utilities prepare for a storm that they may not know is heading their way?

Plan well in advance and stay vigilant. You already know what types of storms are common in your area. For example, even if a tornado hasn’t touched down locally in years, if you’re in ‘tornado alley,’ you should be prepared for least an F1 or F2 tornado.

The idea is to do as much as possible ahead of the storm. Everything else should be set to go immediately behind it.

Of course, not every type of storm can be anticipated. For example, the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado, which was part of the 2011 outbreak that included 363 tornadoes in all. This particular tornado is believed to be the costliest in U.S. history. It reached a maximum path width of 1.5 miles during its track through Tuscaloosa, while reaching sustained winds of 190 mph.2

Normally a tornado will cause localized damage, but this tornado’s devastation was far reaching. Miles of communities were leveled. Power was out for up to two weeks in some areas. Recovery efforts in those situations are not only a sprint, but a marathon.

Those who helped the area restore power after the devastating tornado learned some important lessons about storm preparedness for when the worst happens.

First, prepare for some disorientation. When an entire neighborhood is leveled—including trees and other landmarks—crews can become highly disoriented. Technology like GPS then becomes critically important. In the Alabama outbreak, tornadoes wiped out so much of the infrastructure that engineers were forced to use digitized GPS maps to find where lines once existed. Downed trees, power lines and debris made traveling so difficult that mapping support teams from as far away as Pensacola, Florida, were needed to provide local area maps for navigation.3

Second, when “the box” is destroyed, it’s time to think outside of it. That’s when a strong network of suppliers, manufacturers and utilities comes into play. In the end, more than 6,000 outside contractors, logistical experts and electrical utilities put up enough new wire to stretch from Birmingham, Alabama, to Washington, D.C., and enough poles to build a line from Alabama's northwest tip to the Gulf of Mexico.3

They were able to pool their resources together to get critical supplies where they needed to be quickly and safely. It didn’t happen by chance, however. Planning ahead made all the difference. Lastly, putting safety first and knowing how to contact loved ones and vice versa should always be kept at top of mind.