Perryville tornado shows value of mapping systems, planning

PERRYVILLE, Mo. – New technology and old-school knowledge mixed in the aftermath of the tornado that struck Perry County Feb. 28.

The EF4 tornado ripped a 14-mile-long path through Perryville, population 8,225, and rural Perry County in southeastern Missouri. One motorist died when the tornado lifted a parked car and slammed it into the path of traffic on Interstate 55. The tornado stripped more than 50 homes and farm buildings to their foundations.

University of Missouri Extension natural resources engineer Frank Wideman stepped into action to direct volunteer efforts as part of the Community Emergency Response Team. Wideman and others prepared for this role for many years.

Wideman, a 41-year employee of MU Extension and a longtime area resident, embraced precision agriculture technology when it was in its infancy. MU Extension led the way in training farmers how to use new technology to improve yields and save time and money. Wideman took training from the farm fields to the meeting rooms of emergency services planners in his area.

Years of training and working together paid off when the tornado struck. Within two hours of dispatch, search crews found all residents within the tornado’s path.

Using GIS technology, Wideman helped responders and volunteers from AmeriCorps and other groups locate residents who lived in the tornado zone.

Missouri Mappers Association members overlaid GIS maps and maps from the county assessor’s office, public works offices and 911. Shared maps gave names, phone numbers, GPS locations and terrain. Cellphone numbers proved helpful in reaching homeowners and landowners where no buildings or telephone landlines existed. Social media also played a large role in communications.

In the days and weeks following the tornado, volunteers helped those in need. GPS technology and aerial maps taken March 4 by the photography company Pictometry helped more than 6,000 volunteers. Tornadoes often destroy visual landmarks such as street signs and buildings, leaving conventional directions in the wind.

Wideman also relied on people from the farm community. A local veterinarian helped others navigate rural roads. Farmers’ needs required quick attention: Downed fences and damaged barns left livestock wandering. Scattered fiberglass insulation and other building materials needed to be picked up to prevent damage to combines in harvest. Collapsed grain bins needed emptying to save remaining grain. If cleanup efforts were delayed too long, unseasonably warm weather would cause grass to grow, hiding wood and metal debris that could puncture tires during planting. A high school video class took aerial pictures with a drone to help volunteers find problem areas.

Wideman had used GPS technology to set up proactive emergency response systems in the past. The tornado was a reactive measure of how those systems worked.

In 2014, he led Boy Scouts in mapping fire hydrants in nearby Fredericktown. This helped firefighters find the nearest hydrant as they were on the way to a fire. Emergency responders also learned to use GPS to find stranded hikers, campers and boaters. Response times dropped 75 percent.

Wideman and other Missouri Mappers are working together now to blend old and new records. They plan to outline paths of 1996 and 2006 tornadoes that took routes similar to the most recent one.

Tornado recovery continues in Perryville. Concrete slabs silently mark the graves of homes. Residents live in temporary housing while workers build and repair. The sound of roofers hammering fills the air. Trash-hauling trucks hum.

Today’s needs remain.

Meanwhile, Wideman and others interested in emergency management have begun preparations for the next emergency.

Tomorrow’s needs await.