March 14, 2008, an EF2 tornado tracked through the heart of the City of
9:38 and 9:50 p.m. As it moved across the Georgia World Congress Center
complex, the tornado width was about 100 yards wide and produced winds
of about 120 mph.
I was sitting at home that night watching the SEC
basketball tournament that was taking place at the Georgia Dome, another
venue on our campus. The camera operators began filming the center-hung
scoreboard and lights, which were swaying. Sensing the worst, I raced to
check Weather.com. An “isolated supercell” appeared over downtown
Atlanta. I immediately grabbed my phone and rushed to my car. Driving
into the unknown, my first calls were to Public Safety, the General
Manager and Public Relations. The department directors were next, and I
finally called the event coordinator on duty with a student group in our
ballroom. Everyone on-site was racing around, and I received fragmented
information that I could barely cross match together — water pouring
inside the building, wall collapsed, roof missing, staff head counts are
under way and the fire alarm system is activated.
I was on-site at 10:25 p.m. Streets were blocked, and a new line of
severe storms were “on the way.” It was raining and the street and
parking deck lights were out. I didn’t bring a flashlight. An eerie
feeling settled over me as I approached our Public Safety offices. Doors
were blown off the hinges and hot water poured on the floor, causing a
steam bath. Our emergency procedures call for the emergency control
officer (me) to report to Public Safety and work from there. The radio
communications and cameras were out in Public Safety, however, so I
decided to go mobile.
We established direct connect as the preferred method
of communication. Head counts of staff were performed and re-checked
again. Public Safety swept the exhibit halls to ensure no one was
trapped. They established a perimeter to try and cut down on the
gawkers. I toured the damage to the facilities. Walls were missing,
glass windows and doors blown out, major sections of the roof were
completely blown off, water pipes were torn loose and burst throughout
the buildings, loading-dock doors were blown out and debris and water
were everywhere. As I toured, I related information back to the
executive team at the Georgia Dome, who was working feverishly with the
SEC to relocate the basketball tournament. Immediate emotions of
disbelief, feeling overwhelmed or just plain ready to cry surged through
my mind. Our Executive Director arrived on- site, toured the facility
and by 12:46 a.m. had sent an e-mail note to our Board. Several more
tours of the property were conducted and the day was called at 3:30 a.m.
so we could meet the team at 9 a.m.
Our recovery efforts began to take shape on day 1. Our
insurance carrier arrived first thing. A disaster mitigation company
arrived on-site after lunch. During week 1, we relocated events, managed
media inquiries, called customers, met with insurance teams, toured
customers and local media, assembled an architect, engineer and
construction team and established an internal division of senior staff
duties and responsibilities. Recent retired employees and others
involved with the original construction joined the team. The energy was
awesome. During weeks 2–6, work included continued updated timeline
messaging with employees and customers plus a transition plan from the
mitigation team to the recovery team.
A great lesson learned is to take time to have staff write down what
worked and didn’t work before priorities shift and memories grow foggy.
Encourage staff to keep working on the created list as time and normalcy
return and change is less of a priority. Some other lessons learned
● Respect the level
of destruction a tornado can create and the short period of time
you have to prepare. Our
warning was eight minutes.
● Review facility’s
designated “safe” locations — 6 of the 11 identified in our
emergency plan failed the test.
Identify how you would access emergency funds in the time of a crisis.
ddress emergency purchases.
Pre-identify and qualify a disaster mitigation company.
Review training with staff of main utility shut-off of power, water and
communication elements — Web notifications, updated phone lists.
Continue training — emergency drills, tabletop exercises, senior
incident command training.
● Keep a minimal
amount of supplies on hand — flashlights, gloves, hard hats,
● Review the weather
alert system procedure.
● Review power supply
to critical systems (radios, cameras, and network).
When I first reviewed the destruction that the tornado
caused, my initial sense was that we would be out of business for an
extended period of time. Fortunately our Executive Director had a better
sense of the possibilities. In just 45 days (and nights), we were open
for business in all areas of the GWCC. We still have a long way to go to
replace over 4,500 windows, carpet and roofing, but it sure beats the
alternative. We’re also reaping the benefits of many energy-efficient
upgrades that the reconstruction allowed as well as updates to our
original building that were much needed. However, I would not recommend
a tornado as a way to renovate.
Kevin Duval is
assistant general manager for the Georgia World Congress Center in
Atlanta. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.