BY BRIAN L. HUCHEL
County emergency personnel are already monitoring severe weather situations long before local residents see flashes of lightning and hear rumbles of thunder in the sky.
Stormy weather — no matter the season — is among the ever prevalent threats that the Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency must monitor and be ready to react to at a moment’s notice.
According to EMA Director Ted Fisher, his office makes sure they have much more than a moment’s notice before a storm hits the 900-square-mile county.
“First off when we get the possibility of severe whether, we start looking at the timeline — when it’s going to hit and the duration of it,” he said. “We look at the severity of it, every possibility.”
For Vermilion County, Fisher said our biggest risks are ice storms, windstorms, tornadoes and floods.
Preparing for the worst weather sometimes turns into a group project. Depending on the severity of weather, Vermilion County will join in a conference call with other counties and meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Lincoln. Questions from both sides provide better insight to the storms marching across the state.
“Then going from that, we know when we need to show up at EMA to monitor at a closer pace,” Fisher said. “Then when it’s starting to approach the county, we get the spotters out.”
Visibility issues at night determine how many of the county’s weather spotters are sent out for any given storm.
Once storms cross county lines, Fisher said EMA is hit with an avalanche of information as it works to keep track of storms and the effects on several levels. In addition to reports from weather spotters out in the field, personnel will monitor damage reports, such as trees and utility lines down as well as power outages throughout the county.
While technology has been a boon in handling incoming severe weather, there is still the issue of having too much information.
“It’s a little easier on the forecast and the monitoring of the event,” Fisher said. “But it’s still difficult trying to get all these reports and digest it all at once when it happens.”
Being in a county that covers a lot of north-south area doesn’t help matters.
“You may have multiple fronts on storms at the same time since the county is so large,” Fisher added.
Since 1950, Vermilion County has confirmed 54 tornado reports. Of the past four years, 2009 and 2011 were the busiest with regard to wind, tornado, hail and flood damage incidents. Keeping track of weather situations can be a time-consuming task.
“Every day, you get in the habit of checking the weather,” he said. “Several times I’ve been home and the sun shining. Then I hear about storms over Homer and coming into the county.”
Fisher said it’s not unusual during storm season to put in a 12-hour shift between monitoring and reacting to severe weather as well as determining the resulting damage.
“Once we have those damage reports, the state wants the reports almost before it happens,” he said. “We have to send all that information to the state. They want two updates every day.”