Chaos, gaps slow twister response in Fla.
A review uncovers obstacles that delayed emergency agencies' efforts to answer 9-1-1 calls triggered by the storms
By Christine Dellert
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
Copyright 2007 Orlando Sentinel
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News
THE VILLAGES, Fla. — The two Lake-Sumter EMS medics had no clue they were on a collision course with a tornado.
They had just picked up an elderly man who had fallen at home and were headed to The Villages Regional Hospital when fierce winds slapped their ambulance and nearly tossed it off the road. Tree limbs raked the windshield. Debris pelted the ambulance's side. Lightning struck the roof.
"The truck's in park," Toni Bowling shouted from the driver's seat.
But its wheels kept sliding along the pavement. And that's when, at about 3:15 a.m. on Feb. 2, Young saw the roof of a house fly by his rear window.
Young and Bowling's story illustrates the logistical chaos that emergency crews in Sumter, Lake and Volusia faced immediately after three tornadoes ripped through Central Florida, killing 21 people, injuring hundreds and causing at least $24 million in damage.
Emergency-dispatch recordings, call logs and internal evaluations show the devastating storms caused communications failures and created physical challenges that hampered the emergency-response effort. Though officials don't attribute any deaths to response delays, an Orlando Sentinel review found that:
Initial response times to the areas hardest hit in Lake and Sumter were delayed, up to 10 minutes more than Lake-Sumter EMS' recent average, mainly because roadway debris slowed rescuers.
In Lake and Sumter, only about two dozen ambulances were initially available to handle more than 100 emergency calls during the first two hours after the twisters hit.
Communications networks failed in northeastern Lake County, near Lake Mack, when a 1,700-foot radio tower fell, forcing workers to scream over walkie-talkie systems — or not talk at all.
Emergency operators from several agencies and a hospital couldn't get through to Lake's makeshift emergency-operations center for hours because its 24 phone lines were constantly busy.
In Volusia, communications gaps initially meant incident commanders on either side of the county didn't know they both had been hit by tornadoes.
When their ambulance was dispatched to The Villages, Young said, nobody at his communications center told him and Bowling that a tornado was headed their way. When the terrifying winds died down, the EMS duo rushed the patient to the hospital — and headed back into the worst natural disaster in Lake County's history.
'60 calls all at once'
The first tornado swept eastward across The Villages at 3:10 a.m. before hitting Lady Lake at 3:20 a.m. A second twister with winds up to 165 mph struck rural Lake Mack at 3:48 a.m. About 10 minutes later, it had moved into western Volusia County.
The first EMS call came from Duffy Loop in The Villages of Sumter County about 3:18 a.m., but paramedics took nearly 15 minutes to arrive. All three ambulances that normally cover the area were on prior, unrelated medical calls.
"We had a delayed response because of the other emergency medical calls," Young said. "The biggest thing was, we were hit with 60 calls [in The Villages] all at once."
Jim Judge, Lake-Sumter Emergency Medical Services executive director, said he had 24 ambulances operating in his two counties. Nine more were called in within the hour, he said. About a dozen others from neighboring counties also rolled in to help.
Lake-Sumter paramedics responded to 100 calls within the first two hours — almost as many as they handle in a normal day.
Extensive damage in the hardest-hit areas — power outages, spewed debris, fallen trees — made it nearly impossible for paramedics and other first responders to reach the injured, especially off dirt roads in rural Lake Mack.
"It was just so much devastation," said Ralph Habermehl, Lake-Sumter EMS operations manager. "You can hear the frustration in their [paramedics'] voices: 'We can't get through.'"
Young didn't wait for dispatchers to tell him where to go. He traveled in the direction of the worst reported damage.
But his truck got stuck on fallen branches more than a mile from a patient in the Lady Lake Mobile Home Park. So, Young said, he strapped on his portable medical pack and "just started hiking it in." He then commandeered a resident's truck and treated the patient in the pickup while rushing him to Leesburg Regional Medical Center.
"Mostly it's just improvise and overcome," Young said.
Delayed responses probably didn't affect the number of fatalities in Lake. Of the 21 people who died, 18 likely were killed quickly by the storm's impact, autopsy reports show.
In Lake Mack, David Downing, 15, died in a deputy's car racing to meet an ambulance, several hours after the storm. The storm's oldest victim, Clarence Clarkson, 92, was pronounced dead at The Villages hospital soon after he was found in a field near his home. Albert Gantner, 88, died in a hospital room about two weeks after the storms hit.
In Volusia, EVAC spokesman Mark O'Keefe said 34 EVAC ambulances responded to 305 calls and transported 153 patients that day, with an average response time of 10 minutes in west Volusia County. That's about a minute longer than the average for 90 percent of the agency's nearly 200 daily calls.
"If you get 20 calls in one minute, you prioritize the calls based on what's the most serious," O'Keefe said.
Fallen tower caused issues
Lake-Sumter EMS supervisors kept shifts on longer, called for backup and, in the worst-hit areas, set up regional command centers, which helped dispatch workers when radios got overwhelmed.
"The radio system was so jammed up with everybody trying to say something at the same time," Young said. So first responders at The Villages and Lady Lake switched to Nextel cell phones and scribbled down call times and locations on paper.
But on the other side of the county, about 38 miles away, there was only silence.
The twister toppled a 1,700-foot tower off Royal Trails, and emergency workers lost practically all radio and cell-phone service.
"It didn't affect response times at all," said Gary Kaiser, Lake County's public-safety director. "It did adversely affect in-the-field communications."
Responders used personal radios that work like walkie-talkies. But they couldn't contact dispatch and emergency-operations centers.
"It was very frustrating for law enforcement," Kaiser said. "Sometimes they didn't have any communication at all, and they just went about the job. They treated and rescued and they improvised."
That afternoon, Lake borrowed two temporary towers and equipment and later spent $600,000 replacing them. Kaiser says Lake now must overhaul its emergency radio-communications network — at more than $20 million.
Lake commissioners earlier had agreed to negotiate with radio manufacturer Motorola to convert to an 800-megahertz digital-communications system. It should improve radio coverage countywide, adding at least 14 tower sites to the current six.
In a disaster, Kaiser said, "Communication is the basis of everything you do."
Confusion in Lake
But a modern communications network isn't the only tool Lake lacks.
"We don't have a real emergency operations center," said Jerry Smith, Lake's emergency-management director.
Workers converted a training room in the Lake County administration building in Tavares into a functioning EOC two hours after the storms hit. But county workers complained they didn't have enough computers or phones. Internal evaluations from emergency workers detailed delays and staffing shortfalls.
"EOC having to be put together wasted valuable time," deputy fire Chief John Jolliff wrote.
In another evaluation, Florida Hospital Waterman's Command Center said it tried reaching Lake's EOC for two hours, but "kept getting a busy signal."
Meanwhile, several county workers said they weren't notified of the storm through a reverse-911 system as expected. Some learned of the twisters only after arriving at work.
Others cited poor coordination
Randy Dean, the county's area maintenance supervisor, wrote, "Someone would call . . . and when we responded, people didn't know why or what we were there for, or would have someone else already doing it."
Lake commissioners decided last month to trim plans for a new EOC from a proposed government complex south of Tavares, but Smith said county leaders still want to find a permanent home for the center.
As for the overall response, most emergency officials agree they did the best they could considering the lack of warning, the ferocity of the storms and the time of day.