PNNL, Hanford workers assigned to tornado relief

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMay 23, 2013 

James Spracklen

The two-mile wide path of the tornado through Moore, Okla., looked like a garbage disposal had been at work, grinding up houses, said Jim Spracklen of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in a phone call from near the disaster area Thursday.

He's one of four PNNL and Hanford Mission Support Alliance workers providing emergency support to the disaster area as part of the Department of Energy's energy response team.

He stood Wednesday in front of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died.

"I was just amazed it was not 100," he said. "There was nothing left."

In any direction he looked he saw only the rubble of houses, he said. You could not see where the debris from one house ended and another started. Nothing remained standing more than 5 feet tall but broken tree trunks, with their limbs ripped off, he said.

"You cannot imagine how many vehicles were destroyed," he said. They were upside down and mangled, he said.

He's a veteran of responding to disasters, most often after hurricanes that cause damage with flooding. But this was his first tornado.

Not only have at least 24 people died, but the people who lived in the area have lost their homes, possessions, vital records and contact with their neighbors, he said.

He walked through what was left of the neighborhoods near the school, where residents were allowed in briefly to collect a few items before cleanup begins and bulldozers start piling up the debris.

People usually were escorted out of the destroyed neighborhoods, but he met one elderly man who was alone at his mostly demolished house. The man said he was not leaving, believing he would never see his remaining possessions again.

Spracklen contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency officials he was working with, and the National Guard arrived to help clear out the man's house.

Spracklen also was just down the street when FEMA officials heard whimpering. They lifted the rubble and pulled out a small dog, they told him.

"Someone is going to be happy to be reunited with that little dog," he said.

Beyond the main swath of destruction are houses that are partially destroyed, many with roofs gone, he said.

There had been no time to put tarps over missing and damaged roofs, and the rain poured Thursday morning, drenching the inside of those homes.

"They can't get a break," Spracklen said.

Beyond those damaged homes, there is trash everywhere for several city blocks, he said. A coating of slime covers everything, including the windows of the firehouse where he worked, he said.

Among his responsibilities were to cut through red tape, if needed, to help get gas and electric service restored. Wednesday, service remained out to about 18,000 people, but most of that was because their homes no longer stood, said Spracklen, a PNNL program manager for critical energy infrastructure.

He also helped supply information on the energy situation to state, FEMA and DOE officials, including those reporting conditions to the White House.

He relied in part on software developed by PNNL and other laboratories that shows information on transmission across the nation. When a problem with locally generated data occurred, incorrectly showing that suddenly 200,000 people had no electric service, he was able to use the system to reassure FEMA.

He thinks Moore will be rebuilt faster than expected.

"These are pretty hearty people down here," he said.

He expects to come home today. However, a forecast for severe weather with heavy rain and strong wind could knock power out again and he could be asked to stay longer, he said.

The Mission Support Alliance workers providing DOE support for the disaster include Jeff Baumgartner, a HAMMER training center technical specialist who is assigned to the FEMA National Response Coordination Center in Washington, D.C. Thom Hogg, HAMMER program manager, and Steve Faulk, an emergency manager, are assigned to the FEMA regional headquarters in Denton, Texas.

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