Every emergency manager has one — a routine day that starts off just like any other but quickly unfurls into a nightmare.
But emergency managers spend their entire careers preparing and planning for this bad day, the worst-case scenario that comes roaring to life. In the end, these bad days are what set emergency managers apart from others.
They must draw on their years of expertise and training to help preserve the life, health and safety of their communities, all while remaining calm and collected in the face of tragedy and danger.
In February 2019, Bryan Tuma, the assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency who oversees all day-to-day operations of the agency, and his team were closely monitoring weather conditions and environmental factors in Nebraska. Things weren’t looking good.
For one, it had been one of those harsh winters that are common in the Midwest. In Nebraska, this meant extreme cold temperatures, lots of precipitation and frozen soil that was saturated with moisture. Tuma knew that this combination could lead to a disaster — and he was right.
“We knew the conditions were ripe for something significant to happen to our state,” Tuma said.
Nebraska was hit by the so-called Bomb Cyclone weather event in mid-March. This low-pressure system started in Colorado, but really started to unleashed havoc as it made its way across the Great Plains.
Snow and rain pelted Nebraska, but the moisture could not penetrate the frozen ground. It spilled into rivers, creeks and streams, creaking huge ice jams. Nebraska experienced its worst flooding in 50 years because of the storm.
“Everything just came together in the worst way possible,” he said. “The conditions just stacked up on top of one another.”
Tuma helped stand up the state’s emergency operations center, then coordinated with local, state and federal officials on disaster response and recovery efforts. At one point during the incident, Nebraska closed more than 3,000 miles of state and federal highways, closed more than 50 bridges and saw significant damage to miles and miles of county roads.
Many residents were displaced from their homes and businesses, including some who had to be evacuated by airboat and helicopter.
“We had to get pretty creative in terms of trying to get medical supplies and help to folks, getting people evacuated,” Tuma says. “Those were not unique challenges because our state does get flooded from time to time, but the scale of this was just unbelievable. The number of communities that were impacted was just off the charts.”
One moment, in particular, stands out to Tuma from this disaster. He got a phone call very early one morning alerting him to the fact that Spencer Dam failed, which sent a wall of water and ice crashing down the Niobrara River.
“When you get a phone call like that, your heart just sinks,” he says.
The March 2019 floods were a reminder to Nebraska emergency managers to always expect the unexpected. The flooding also highlighted the importance of proper training exercises and planning.
“You plan, you train, you exercise with the idea that when an event does occur, you know how to respond and you know who your partners are — it’s an investment,” he said.
In the end, the 2019 floods ultimately prepared Nebraska emergency management personnel for yet another impending disaster: the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuma said people across the state are tired, but they also have the confidence to know they can tackle anything life throws their way.
“We are continuing to make adjustments in terms of how we respond to future events,” he said. “It was good for us as practitioners to see what we had the capacity to respond to, that we could handle something of that magnitude.”
For Jonathan Al-Khal, special operations coordinator for the Lehigh County Office of Emergency Management in southeastern Pennsylvania, the day he trained for was Sept. 29, 2018.
It was late that Saturday evening when Al-Khal saw a CORVENA notification on his phone about a possible car bombing in downtown Allentown. At first, he was incredulous — was there really a car bombing in this quaint mid-sized town? He wondered instead if a car simply caught fire and exploded accidentally.
Not long after that initial notification came through, he got a request for a command post. The gravity of the situation hit him then and there. When he arrived on the scene, he saw body parts spread across an entire city block and learned that three people were killed during the incident, including a child. He saw debris everywhere, a result of the explosion blowing out windows in buildings two to three blocks away from the detonation site.
Al-Khal put his head down and got to work, coordinating with local police and fire departments, the coroner’s office, other emergency management experts and, later, the FBI and ATF. Officials would later announce the car boming was a murder-suicide carried out by 26-year-old Jacob Schmoyer, who targeted his toddler son and an acquaintance.
One of the biggest lessons Al-Khal learned that day was the importance of picking the right site for the command post. His team ended up moving their command post from its original location after they realized it was too close to the detonation site. The incident also pointed out the need to install printers in the drone truck so that operators could print and share real-time images and maps of the scene with partner organizations.
But the incident also reaffirmed the strong relationships Al-Khal and others had successfully built with partner agencies over the years. Though it was undoubtedly stressful and chaotic, the incident response went smoothly, all thanks to collaboration and teamwork.
“You know it’s important to build these relationships, but you don’t exactly know why until it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and I had to call all of them on their cell phones and say, “I need this, I need that.’ And they say, ‘No problem, we’re sending it right now,’” said Al-Khal, who started his career in emergency services as a volunteer firefighter at the age of 16. “It really does make life so much easier because everybody plays a crucial part in this. We were able to get things done a lot faster because of those relationships we built.”
The car bombing also reiterated the need to hone-in on the basics and to never lose sight of key emergency preparedness measures, which go a long way no matter what specific incident you’re responding to.
“In emergency management, we can get involved in so many different situations that you can never plan and be prepared for everything, but you can always be prepared for the basics,” he said.