Helping Hands

Neighboring utilities responded with personnel and equipment to help an Indiana water company get back in service after a severe tornado.
Helping Hands
Photos courtesy of Bruce Cunningham, South Harrison (Ind.) Water Corp.

When a band of tornadoes cut across the Midwest last spring, one of the hardest hit communities was Henryville, Ind. There, one resident died and nearly 100 homes, several businesses and the community's school were heavily damaged or destroyed.

Matt Shields, superintendent of Rural Membership Water Corp. (RMWC) in Henryville, saw the system essentially shut down by the March 2 storm, which damaged a booster pump station, the main control building, and a 280,000-gallon storage tower.

After the F4 tornado hit town on Friday at 3:30 p.m., the water system was out of service. A lack of power rendered the staff unable to pump water or balance the system. Water quality was compromised because the twister ripped the roof vent and manway cover from the largest water tower, exposing the water to the elements and storm debris.

For Shields and his crew, the damage marked the beginning of a weeklong push to restore normal operations. Key to the recovery was an infusion of help from neighboring waters systems, contractors and state organizations who contributed manpower, equipment and advice.

It took two days for crews to restore service to more than 90 percent of the system, which serves 3,000 accounts. By the Tuesday after the storm, after more than four long days of repairs and testing, pressure was restored and lines were flushed throughout the system. The water tower would not go back online for three months, but otherwise the RMWC was back to normal.

Shields credits help from many corners for RMWC's quick recovery: "The people who were involved, we couldn't have done half of it without them." He found the outpouring of help inspiring, "Not only on the professional side, but on the personal side. Seeing the people pour in to help gave us hope that we could recover."

Warning pays off

Henryville received warning of the storm and Shields sent his two office workers home at about 2 p.m. while retreating with his two technicians to a fire station several blocks away. They had a good view of the tornado as it approached and as it left, but they took shelter inside the station when the twister hit the center of town.

When the storm passed, Shields and his crew went to check on their loved ones and homes. After making sure that his wife and 4-year-old son were safe, Shields met his crew at the fire station just in time to take shelter from a second storm, a super-cell thunderstorm that pelted the community with hail "as big as softballs" and carried a smaller F1 tornado that did not touch down.

As soon as that storm cleared, Shields issued a "Boil Water" advisory. At about 6 p.m., he met with the fire chief and other emergency officials.

Starting the recovery

RMWC lost power to its system, which includes three tanks (280,000-, 250,000- and 80,000-gallon capacities), two pump stations, the control building, and an office building. Shields called Tom Nelson of TNT Technologies in nearby Floyds Knob, who services the utility's SCADA controls and electrical systems. He in turn contacted several nearby water utilities to locate portable generators to help RMWC get running again.

RMWC buys treated water from Sellersburg and the Stucker Fork Water Utility, and the storm did not interfere with the bulk water supplies, so Shields' focus was on re-establishing delivery of water to customers whose homes had not been devastated. The challenges included developing a plan that bypassed the damaged tower and sent water to the 250,000-gallon storage tank.

But first, Shields divided the town with employees Eric Marcum and Kenny Dunn, and they began tracking down the many leaking waterlines at homes and buildings damaged or destroyed. They closed valves on water lines serving streets in the most damaged parts of town and began turning water off at the meter boxes of individual damaged buildings.

Some customers on the south side of Henryville actually rely upon pressure from Sellersburg. When nearby South Harrison sent a 100 kW Caterpillar diesel generator, Nelson helped Shields power up a pump station and start moving water to a zone on the west side of town by about midnight.

A 75 kW generator supplied by Ramsey Water Company powered up the control building at the base of the damaged tower. The pre-fabricated building from Engineered Fluid had survived with no damage other than some strained areas in its seams.

With the pump station and control building up and running, Shields saw the first ray of hope. "By then, I knew I had water for at least half of my customers for the night, and some others had water available from the pressure in the standpipe at the 280,000-gallon tower," says Shields. He and his crew called it a day at about 1 a.m. Saturday.

Help on the way

Meanwhile, Gordon Meyer, a circuit rider for Alliance of Indiana Rural Water, saw the news from Henryville and got permission from his executive director to help RMWC. Meyer, an Air Force veteran with broad water system training and experience, has worked with Alliance since 1999. He has helped other utilities after disasters, but the Henryville tornado was a new experience.

He arrived in Henryville Saturday morning and spent most of the next week at Shields' side, serving as a sounding board on operational decisions and calling Alliance members when Shields needed equipment or manpower. "When you're dealing with this kind of damage, your mind is going a million miles a minute," says Shields. "Gordon was like my notepad, keeping track of the things we did and what I said we needed to do."

On Saturday, work crews from the Sellersburg and the Silver Creek Water Corp. arrived with several additional generators, used to power the RMWC office and the SCADA equipment at the two water towers still in service. Jason Lewis led the crew from Silver Creek and public works director Keith Alexander led the Sellersburg team. They helped RMWC employees search for leaks and turn off water services.

"By then we knew what our situation was," Shields says. "We had to go around shutting meter pits off before we could restore pressure to many parts of the system."

Because communications were spotty, the crews fanned out over the community and reported to Shields at appointed times about work completed and problems encountered. Crews were also dispatched to repair several water mains after they were damaged by workers replacing hundreds of utility poles.

"Saturday evening, we had most of the system pressurized and flushed, minus the four streets that were most heavily damaged," Shields says.

Second wave

On Sunday, the Sellersburg and Silver Creek crews continued checking on services and looking for other problems. Then on Monday, crews from South Harrison and the Ramsey Water Company took over. "It was nice to be able to stagger it like that, so you didn't have people sitting and waiting to get directions," Shields says.

Although Shields estimates his system was operating at 90 to 95 percent by Sunday night, the South Harrison and Ramsey crews worked all day Monday and Tuesday, often handling new problems as they arose.

As service returned to normal and people returned to their damaged homes, Shields needed to send the crews out to do repairs or assess newly discovered damage. And as mounds of debris in the most damaged areas began to be cleared, the crews went in and look for buried meter pits where they could turn off services so more of the system could be put back in operation.

South Harrison general manager Bruce Cunningham arrived with two crew members on Monday. They went home Tuesday, but he stayed until Thursday. "I've been in the utility business for 22 years and I've seen a lot of tornadoes and a lot of damage, but I've never seen devastation like that," Cunningham says. "When a storm like that hits, a lot of people don't realize that all those meters have to be found and turned off before the system can be restored to service."

Capable response

Cunningham praised the way Shields responded to the disaster: "Matt is a good young fellow. He's only been manager a few years, but he did a great job. I just tried to give him some support – a shoulder to lean on if he needed it."

David Seacat of Ramsey Water tried to call Shields soon after the tornado, but no calls were getting through. "I called Alliance and told them I could send generators or crews, whatever they needed," he recalls. When Meyer called, he was ready to roll.

To document the value of the services rendered by other utilities for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Shields secured invoices from them, but he and Cunningham understood that RMWC would not have to pay for the labor and equipment.

"This is the way that people in small towns work with each other," Cunningham says. "People help people when there is a disaster. If something like this happens to me, I may need his help."

Seacat was impressed with the utilities' response: "It was really neat to see so many people helping in a situation like that. It appears that if there is an emergency that affects us, then there's going to be plenty of help on the way. And that's good to know."

Other than the large water tower, the RMWC system was essentially up and running by the end of the third day. On Tuesday, workers answered service calls about leaks and checked on other problems as they arose. On Thursday, six days after the tornado, Shields took the 16 bacterial testing samples required by the state. "By Saturday, I had my results, and we lifted the 'Boil Water' advisory," he says.

Returning to normal

In mid-June, some three-and-a-half months after the tornado, RMWC began refilling its 280,000-gallon water tower, which needed more than $200,000 in repairs and updates. Workers had to tackle both cosmetic and sanitary issues, but engineers said the basic structure was still sound.

The repairs cost about $130,000. The interior needed a major cleaning, but Shields decided instead to have the original wax lining stripped away so the tank could be relined with a modern epoxy finish. "We were planning to do that next year anyway, so we spent in the ballpark of $70,000 to have it done now," he says.

Out of the system's nearly 3,000 customers, more than 100 were still inactive by mid-summer, but the Henryville schools were prepared to open in August. That was good news for Shields, who also coaches the high school soccer team.

Lessons learned

Through the experience, Shields learned the importance of a detailed and current emergency response plan. His plan was fresh in his mind and he stuck close to it, but he notes that it could have helped to have it in his hand on several occasions to remind him of the steps he needed to take.

RMWC participates in the Indiana Rural Water Association Mutual Aid Agreement, so Shields knew help would be available. The initial problem was that he couldn't even communicate across town, let alone with outside agencies. The tornado knocked out phone service, cellphone towers, and even the radio systems used by police, fire and utility officials. Shields is trying to come up with ideas on how to overcome the problem if he ever faces a similar disaster.

Until communications began coming back (land line phones were the first to work on Saturday night), Shields and his employees had to agree to meet at designated times to review progress. They often met at the town's command center, where they could brief emergency services officials and receive requests for services.

The lack of communications made it difficult to get the word out about the "Boil Water" advisory. With phones power down, Shields had to rely on posters distributed by his crews, announcements over PA systems on fire trucks, and assistance from Homeland Security officials who came to the community's aid.

Between the mutual aid agreement, Meyer's availability and help from the informal Southern Indiana water system operators network he is involved in, Shields believes he has developed one of the most important assets available in a disaster: mutual friendship and trust.

Shields spoke at the Indiana Rural Water Association last April and at an Alliance of Indian Rural Water management conference in July. One point he likes to stress is the importance of an emergency plan: "You have to treat it like it's a real deal, not just an exercise."

And if any of his neighbors faces a similar disaster in the future, Shields says, "I'm not going to wait to be asked. We're just going to be ready to go."


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