Immediately following the hail storm came a deluge of rain which lasted several hours and totaled 5 - 5.5 inches. This was a significant amount of rainfall within a three hour time period and was exacerbated by the fact that the ground was saturated from previous rainfall earlier that week.
Flash flooding was imminent and a direct result of the drainage system being overloaded. The elevation of the main campus also significantly contributed to the runoff flash flooding in the secondary areas.
The oldest section of the WKU campus is situated high upon a hill within the Bowling Green community. Subsequent expansions have occurred along the down slope and plateau throughout the years. The geographical setting of the campus was the impetus for the nickname for the WKU athletic teams which is the "Hilltoppers."
Another significant factor during the storm was the presence of intense wind gusts. According to Dr. Glen Conner, WKU Climate Center, the velocity of the wind gusts peaked at 55 m.p.h. during the storm. The temperatures also dropped abruptly which is common during a tornadic storm (Personal Communication, 1998).
On April 16, 1998, an otherwise normal day turned ugly at approximately 3:30 p.m. Much of the day was normal parking and traffic details. Because of heavy rain the night before and potential flooding, two cars were being relocated at Egypt Parking Lot at 10:44 a.m.. A tornado watch went into effect from 1:52 p.m. till 8:00 p.m. A tornado warning was received at 3:31 p.m. and the all clear at 4:27 p.m.
Communications personnel sounded the alert through the campus warning siren immediately. Soon thereafter all "hail" broke loose as people scurried for shelter, strong winds, rain, and "golf ball" sized hail pummeled the entire campus area. Students were ordered from any open areas to shelter when they ignored the warning siren. The ground was covered in ice.
As the hail began to subside some 20 to 25 minutes later, emergency phone lines began to light up. The rain continued! Frantic calls from people in the local community reporting windows blown out, fire alarms sounding, trees down, stalled vehicles, downed power lines, and roofs blown off with rain pouring in were received. Electrical power was interrupted and a nearby 4 lane highway became a sea of surging water 3 feet deep, littered with debris.
The WKU Police were fortunate that day as the tornado hail storm approached when there would normally be a shift change in staffing. As a result, two complete shifts of officers and communications personnel were present. They performed admirably. The communications personnel received and dispatched every emergency call for service while prioritizing calls in accordance with University policy. The patrol division answered calls supported by investigation unit personnel. Police officers rescued two motorists at a nearby underpass before three cars were totally submerged. At 9:36 p.m. the incident was under control and a sense of normalcy returned. By dawn, the real picture would begin to emerge and the totality of the situation would become known as news. April 16, 1998 was a day when teamwork was superbly displayed.
Downing University Center’s roof was severely damaged and the building was subsequently evacuated and closed. Water poured through the four story building down stairwells and elevator shafts with a waterfall effect! Over 400 windows were broken as a result of hail and wind. Vehicles were abandoned in the streets with broken windshields and exteriors that resembled dimpled golf balls. Hail was reported to be baseball size in some areas.
Facilities personnel worked hand-in-glove with police personnel blocking streets which were flooded and impassable. Electricians, carpenters, and plumbers went to work throughout the night. Power was quickly restored by 4:58 p.m.. No serious injuries were reported on campus.
Select officers from the Crisis Management team met just after 7:00 p.m. to assess and discuss damage and plans for the next day. A decision was made to cancel classes Thursday night and all day Friday, April 17 to permit emergency personnel to catch their breath. Governor Paul Patton visited the area on Friday, April 17th. The damage from the storm was incredible. Three counties, including Warren, were later declared Federal Disaster Areas by President Clinton. Three deaths had occurred in adjacent counties.
A Crisis Plan in place at WKU and previously rehearsed was effective this day. Emergency personnel professionally trained made the difference and timing was everything.
In an effort to increase the safety awareness of the WKU campus community, four proactive students formed a Storm Team. Implemented on February 11, 1998, the Storm Team tracks all weather and emergency situations and reports live on campus via the university cable system and campus FM radio. According to the Coordinator, Brian Goode, what started out with four volunteers has evolved into a group of over forty volunteers ready to report on the diverse emergency situations that may affect the campus. These conditions include severe snow, wind, weather, or hazardous materials (HAZMAT) spills, etc (Personal Communication, 1998).
On a daily basis the Storm Team checks the Storm Production Center, Weather Channel radar, and graphics from the Internet. When needed, the Storm Team will appear live on campus cable channel 12 and WWHR 91.7 FM radio. As a matter of protocol, all television monitors on campus are turned to this channel in the event of an emergency. On April 16, 1998, the Storm Team went on-line at 4:45 p.m, with the tornado warning being issued at 3:30 p.m. During the three squalls that hit during the storm, the Storm Team stayed on until just after 7:00 p.m. that night. Members also reported on the extent of damage to the campus and provided updates and releases of information from the WKU Police Department as received. The Storm Team recorded the only video of the hail that hit the campus. This footage was later broadcast on the television networks in Nashville, Tennessee.
& Local Community
Many of the students and employees ventured outside of their dormitories and office buildings to visually inspect the damage to the campus and personal automobiles after the hail storm ended. After seeing the extensive damage, several individuals decided to leave the campus and attempt to return home to assess damage without being cognizant of their continued risk. Due to the depth of the flooding and strength of the current, the WKU Police Department received numerous calls from stranded motorists with stalled vehicles all over campus. Two individuals were rescued by WKU police officers before their automobiles were submerged by water.
According to Minor (1998), the total damage to Warren County and the city of Bowling Green was estimated to exceed $510 million. Major damage was reported in 8,300 homes with1,300 receiving minor damage. Thirty-seven businesses sustained major damage with forty-two receiving minor damages. Flash flooding closed 31 roads in the county and 16 within the city (Park City Daily News, 1998). Approximately 31 individuals were treated at the two local hospitals (Park City Daily News, 1998). One of the four local high schools was in the direct path of the storm. It sustained $8 million dollars in damages and was closed for the remainder of the academic year. As a result, the students were forced to complete their studies at one of the junior high schools (Pantoja, 1998).
Issues and Future Recommendations
The college campus presents a multitude of issues that must be considered when developing disaster recovery and mitigation policies and procedures for severe weather or other emergencies.Western Kentucky University’s Crisis Management Plan was implemented in 1994. A committee was established under the direction of Chief of Police Horace Johnson, Jr. and the plan was finalized over an eight month period. The plan was based on current practices and recommendations from other colleges and universities. The plan worked exceptionally well during the April 16, 1998 disaster because of several factors. First, everyone understood their responsibility. Second, the various responding departments and agencies employed collaboration of resources and personnel. Finally, participation in simulated table top exercises ensured a prompt and appropriate response. However, it must also be noted that prior to 1994, no such formal plan existed. The need for such planning by colleges and universities was further evident this summer when over forty campuses were forced to assess the damage associated with the wrath of hurricane Bonnie (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1998).
Despite the success of the campus response to the April 16, 1998 severe weather, several concerns were later identified. The first pertained to reaction of many students, and faculty and staff after the alarm warning was issued. Scores of students were participating in Greek activities at the football stadium and failed to heed the warning, or believed it to be simply a test. As a result, WKU Police officers were forced to direct students to safety. According to Drabek & Hoetmer (1991), "typically, the public underestimates risk; people generally believe that they are safe from hazards."
With this in mind, those responsible for dealing with and planning for emergencies must "overcome indifference about, and sometimes outright opposition to, disaster planning and preparedness" (Drabek & Hoetmer, 1991). The second concern was the fact that many individuals attempted to leave the campus when all of the roads were flooded. This situation could have easily proven fatal without the quick response of the WKU Police officers.
According to Brubaker (1997), "no one is immune to the effects of severe weather, whether it be high winds, tornadoes, or hurricanes. Even with today’s technology, we have not yet been able to control the wrath of Mother Nature and her oftentimes devastating effects." The key to responding effectively is proper planning.
Ballman, J. (1998). Nashville tornadoes test contingency plans in downtown area. Disaster Recovery Journal, 11(3), 19-20.
Brubaker, A. (1997). Tornado Safety. Occupational Health & Safety, 66(10), pp. 150-154.
Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 4, 1998). East coast colleges assess Bonnie’s Wrath, Vol XLV(2), A 10.
Drabek, T. E., & Hoetmer, G. J. (Eds.). (1991). Emergency management: Principles and practice for local Government. Washington, DC: International City Management Association.
Flooding closes roads throughout Warren County. (1998, April 17). Park City Daily News, p.3A.
Minor, R. (1998, April 20). Federal agency is en route to begin its assessment of the storm damage. Park City Daily News, p. 1A, 2A.
Pantoja, D. (1998, April 20). BGHS closed for rest of school year. Park City Daily News, p. 1A, 2A
Parfit, M. (1998, July). Living with natural hazards. National Geographic, 194(l), 4-39
Personal Communication (1998). Interview with Dr. Glen Conner, WKU Climate Center.
Personal Communication (1998). Interview with Brian Goode, Coordinator, WKU Storm Team.
Michael D. Ballard, Ed.D., CHES - is an Assistant Professor of Health & Safety in the Department of Public Health at Western Kentucky University.
Horace F. Johnson, Jr - is the Chief of Police at Western Kentucky University. He spearheaded the development of the current crisis management plan for the University.
Susan M. Smith, Ed.D., - is an Assistant Professor of Health & Safety in the Department of Health & Safety Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
James Ramge is an A.G.S. Office Associate at Western Kentucky University.