On December 10, 2021, the deadliest tornado outbreak on record, for the month of December, rumbled across the southern United States, producing catastrophic damage. More than 15,000 buildings were destroyed and 71 people died.
The surprising, late-season, storm led to 22 deaths in Kentucky, the scene of a massive emergency response. Part of the reason it was a record-breaker, according to a Verizon crisis response official, is that December tornadoes are rare.
“It was an unusual time for any type of tornadic activity. In December, we don’t think of that as being a time that we’re going to be affected with the type of weather that’s going to cause any type of damage”, said Jason Mitchell, Senior Manager, Verizon Crisis Response Team.
“Generally”, he said, “it’s going to be a freeze, blizzards, bomb cyclones, This [tornado] was one that kind of crept up on us.”
An EF4 tornado, characterized by wind speeds between 116 and 200 mph, is the second most intense on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The strength, path, and duration of the December 10th event were also surprising.
“It was on the ground for nearly three hours; tracking 160 miles in total. What was so bad about this was the areas that were hit, were very rural,” said Mitchell.
He indicated that the unpredictability of twisters is also a major concern.
“A tornado just doesn’t go to the ground and stay on the ground in a straight path. It bounces around, it goes back up and that’s what we saw here.”
The devastating path of the tornado started in Arkansas.
“It bounced around for a little bit, came down and slapped into Kentucky and affected Tennessee as well,” Mitchell said.
The violent, nighttime tornado rumbled across Western Kentucky, producing severe to catastrophic damage in numerous towns, including Mayfield, Princeton, Dawson Springs and Bremen.
There was widespread damage to communications infrastructure.
“As it hit that night, quite a bit of infrastructure was affected, whether it be landline, through our Teleco providers, or our infrastructures, our existing towers. We’ve seen towers that looked like someone reached up and pulled them to the ground,” Mitchell said.
In addition to the obvious devastation, Mitchell said, people often don’t realize the scope of the damage.
“We have multiple regions and a lot of people hear about the damage from Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Ida, down in the Louisiana area, but they really don’t think about what it did to West Virginia? We have to get to communities that were underwater because of that same storm. The same is true for a tornado.”
Powerful storms can leave customers in the dark with no communications capabilities .
That’s considered a serious homeland security risk. To mitigate it, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides end-to-end communications priority using three special services: Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS), Wireless Priority Service (WPS), and Telecommunications Service Priority (TSP).
“We rely heavily on WPS. It’s something that public safety officials have access to as well and we highly encourage them to make sure they have that on their account. It allows them to get priority service over your normal person,” Mitchell said.
He pointed out, “it doesn’t take priority over 911 service if someone needs to make that call. But it gives our first responders, fire, police, and our emergency services personnel, the priority to talk above the normal folks.”
But sometimes even that is not enough. The December 10th storm was one of those occasions.
Five members of the Verizon Crisis Response Team from around the country were deployed to Kentucky. Because the storm struck at night, they had to wait until daylight, because of concerns about contacting downed power lines in the dark. The next day, they needed everything they could muster, because there was a massive search and rescue effort underway.
“We pulled into Mayfield and there was a candle factory all over the news that was just leveled, Mitchell said.
Because Mayfield is such a small community, with a population of less than 10,000, he said, emergency teams from all over Kentucky and other states were deployed to assist.
“You’ve got Indiana Task Force One, Ohio Task Force One, Louisville and Lexington are responding. You got all these large metro areas that are sending their folks down there and there’s no communication.”
His Verizon team swiftly remedied the problem.
“We pride ourselves on being able to quickly deploy into any major metropolitan area within 3 to 4 to 5 hours, depending on location. We’re able to quickly get in there and utilize our SPOT trailer technology and create not only Verizon frontline technology, but also Wi-Fi as well.”