As we all watched the tragedy unfold in Oklahoma and the Midwest over the last couple of weeks, it reminded me of a similar situation I was in about 5 or 6 years ago. So, I’m gonna take a break from the jewelry industry stuff and write about one of my other jobs - emergency response. In that world I’m known as Sgt. Koehler, 3120, Metro Nashville Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, Emergency Support Unit.
In Nashville, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) plays a critical role in every election. There are 167 voting precincts in the county. When the polls close at 7:00, all 167 precincts have to load up all of their ballot boxes, computers, posters, signs, etc. and physically drive them to the election headquarters to turn them in and sign off on all the forms.
The election commission uses a large loading dock at the back of a cavernous government building, but there are only about 50 parking spots back there. That’s where OEM comes in. We choreograph the dance of unloading the cars, overseeing the integrity of the ballot boxes, crating the posters and signs until the next election, and dealing with over 250 cars crammed into 50 parking spots… all at the exact same time. Piece of cake, huh.
Oh yeah, there’s one other thing to consider. The average age of a poll worker is probably north of 80. And, they’ve just worked a 16 hour day. So the story goes like this…
It started to rain just as I pulled into the front parking lot of the election commission at about 6:30 in the evening, and it never stopped. So, I donned my rain gear, checked in with my Captain, received my assignment, and headed back to the loading dock. Since it was about an hour before the first cars were going to show up, a bunch of us are standing around talking when all of our pagers lit up like Christmas trees telling us that we just went under a tornado watch. Oh well, we were kind of expecting that since it’d been threatened all day. Captain Sullivan tells us all that he thought it was going to get upgraded to a tornado warning very soon based on what he was seeing on his fancy, high tech radar (this was before smart phones) in his car.
Fast forward a couple of hours and I’m soaking wet, I’ve got lots of elderly, tired, poll workers idling in their cars waiting for a parking spot to open up, only to have to walk in the rain to the loading dock, to stand in line in the rain under some pop ups we set up, just trying to get inside and do their business and get home before the weather gets any worse. There were about 40 to 50 of these people in my immediate area when our pagers went off again. About 20 seconds later, the tornado sirens start sounding. Gee, this night was just getting better and better. I looked at Captain Sullivan, and he shook his head up and down in a ‘it’s coming this way’ kind of gesture. Uh oh. What now?
A few of us huddled around the TV inside the loading dock and it looked pretty bad, so the decision was made to evacuate everyone off of the loading dock and move everyone inside the building. That job fell to me.
I got on the radio and told all personnel to just park the cars where they were and get the people inside the building now. Fortunately, we were down to about the last 20 to 30 precincts still waiting to park and not at the beginning when I had 100+ cars jammed up out there.
While they were getting everyone inside the loading dock from outside, I found a long hallway that led from the loading dock to the interior of the building. That looked pretty good so I started herding my peeps into that area. By now I had two distinct groups. About 40 or so were elderly poll workers and about 20 or so were much younger folks who worked at the election commission. The decision was made to move everyone inside except our personnel, two police officers, and two top election officials who continued to move the election results into a freight elevator and one story up to the election commission offices.
As soon as I had everyone in the hallway, I moved farther into the building to search for a safer spot for my charges. I found a door that was supposed to be locked but someone had bunched up the rug so the door wouldn’t lock. Once inside the door, I found myself in a large room with about 50 cubicles. This was some city department or other, but all I thought was it was farther away from the loading dock so I went back and got my group and told them to follow me. I told everyone to find a seat but don’t get too comfortable because we were probably going to move again.
As I moved farther into the building, I came to another locked door with a window I could look through. About 50 feet away I could see a security guard sitting at a desk with his back to me. I started banging on the door and scared the crap out of the night watchman. He hesitated for a minute before finally realizing I wasn’t going to go away until he came over to me. As he’s walking towards me, he’s gesturing and saying something about the building was closed, I wasn’t supposed to be there, he wasn’t allowed to open the door, blah, blah, blah. I unclipped my badge from my belt, stuck it up to the glass and said, “OPEN…THE…DOOR…NOW!” Then I gave him the evil eye and raised my eyebrow at him, and poof, out came the keys and he opens the door.
He started to say something, but I pushed past him and told him to follow me with his keys. I must have said pretty please with sugar on top because he quit arguing and fell in behind me. As I’m searching the building, I’m getting tornado updates over the radio… 20 miles out, 18 miles out, 15 miles out. By now, the night watchman had figured out what was going on and he was ‘all in’ with my plan because he was in the storm’s path too.
I found a large cavernous open space I guessed to be about the center of this huge building and it had lots of chairs and tables stacked up against one wall. Sweet. This was going to have to do. We went back to the cubicle area where everyone had spread out in the cubicles making themselves at home when I started rounding them all up and told them it was time to move. Of course, my security guard said “Hey, no one is supposed to be in here,” but I just showed him the hand and he stopped.
Once I got everyone in the new space, I had all my younger group start breaking out the chairs and tables for everyone to try and get comfortable while they rode the storm out. Then I grabbed two young guys and told them to come with me. The three of us then went back through the maze of the building about 300 yards or so to the loading dock and found some rolling carts and loaded them up with all of the sandwiches and drinks that the election commission always has on hand for he poll workers at the end of their very long day.
Let me tell you, the room took on a whole different tone when we came rolling in there with dinner and drinks. Everyone just sat at a table, ate a sandwich, and forgot about why they were there.
Of course, they didn’t realize that the only reason I had all of the tables set up was for them to get under when all hell started breaking loose. I’m still getting updates on my radio but I had it turned way down so I was the only one that could hear it. Then I heard, 2 miles out, and I could really hear the wind and the rain, even this far into the building. The tornado we were tracking had touched down, went up, and touched down, several times since the warning went out. Then the call came over the radio that it was on top of us and it was only at that second that it hit me…What if I picked the wrong spot and this room collapses?
WOW! Panic set in for a moment, but deep down I knew I’d done all I could do to try and keep everyone safe.
Then, just like that, the tornado tucked back up in the clouds, went directly over the building, and didn’t do anything to us. Then about 10 minutes later, it touched down again and resumed its erratic path.
I got the ‘all clear’ over the radio and I started moving everyone back out to the loading dock and out to their vehicles and on their way home. They all thanked me on their way out for taking care of them and then it was all over… just like that.
So, every time I hear the stories about people that huddled in hallways, hid in a closet, or took shelter wherever they were, I think about that night. When you’re in the path of a disaster, there is no right or wrong. There’s no second guessing, there’s just doing all you can with what you have at your disposal at that very moment, and then you pray. I’ve been in three tornados where the shelter I was in held firm but the ones around it collapsed.
My thoughts and prayers go out to all of my readers that were in the path. I know exactly what was going through your mind.