KEARNEY — Don’t get complacent.
After two floods in the past year and the COVID-19 pandemic, an ever-present danger lurks in the Midwest — severe weather.
So, preparedness is key this time of year.
Severe storms most often take aim at Nebraska between May 1 and July 30.
Twelve years ago, on May 29, 2008, a tornado hit the northwest corner of Kearney, lifted up and then slammed into the Buffalo County Fairgrounds.
But “bad storms are more than just tornadoes,” said Darrin Lewis, the emergency manager for Buffalo County.
“We have wind, hail, high winds and heavy rain, too.”
If a tornado threatens, Lewis has one of the safest offices in the city. His Emergency Operations Center is tucked underneath the Buffalo County Jail inside the Buffalo County Justice Center, 1512 Central Ave.
Lewis said official storm warnings come from the National Weather Service in Hastings. If a tornado is within five miles of Kearney and headed toward the city, Lewis sounds the sirens.
“Once the National Weather Service puts Kearney under a tornado warning, that’s good enough for me. We don’t have sirens in rural Buffalo County, but if there is a tornado in rural Buffalo County, sirens will sound if it’s within five miles of coming to Kearney,” he said.
Lewis keeps an eye on radar in nearby counties by watching large screens on the EOC wall. He stays in contact with NWS officials via a live chat room.
Along with radar, Lewis depends on people known as “spotters” to head out and watch for tornadoes when the situation warrants.
In towns like Pleasanton and Gibbon, firefighters serve as spotters. Being “uniquely local,” they know their towns, he said.
“Miller could be having tornadic activities while the sun is shining in Gibbon,” he said.
Civilian spotters here are volunteers who belong to the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Currently led by veteran Jan Parker, these trained emergency radio operators are organized to assist in emergency communications.
ARES volunteers are used primarily within Kearney city limits, but they can be called to scan skies in Gibbon, Elm Creek and Pleasanton, too. They know the area and know where to position themselves to keep their eyes on the sky.
“If it looks like we might need to issue warnings, we have protocols we follow when we send spotters out,” Lewis said. Although radar can see “clear across the region,” he relies on spotters in dangerous weather conditions because sometimes, spotters can find tornadoes that radar does not.
“Even with law enforcement and fire personnel, we still have limited resources, so ARES is critical,” Lewis said. “I’m in here. I’m not out spotting. They report information to me. If they are out there and see a tornado on the ground, I rely on them to provide that information to us.”
As for sirens, rural areas do not have them because the need is rarely there. “If there’s a tornado on the ground moving away from, say, Gibbon, and it’s not threatening anybody, we don’t sound sirens,” Lewis said.
Lewis said sirens are sounded not just for tornadoes, but for destructive straight-line winds and large hail, too. “A 72 mph straight-line wind has the force of a Category 1 hurricane, and 75 mph straight-line winds can destroy a trailer home,” Lewis said.
Sirens also sound for hail that is tennis-ball size or larger. Spotters provide critical details in hailstorms, too.
“But remember: sirens are for people outdoors,” Lewis said. “They are outdoor warning devices designed to make people go inside. If you can hear it inside your home, it’s a bonus.”
People who live in trailer homes need to have a plan for severe weather. “Trailer homes seems to be tornado magnets,” he said. “You should have a plan, and you can’t wait till sirens go off to implement it.”
He believes elected officials should require all new construction — including hotels, apartment complexes and trailer homes — to have a tornado shelter built into them or located on the premises. He urged people to speak to the managers of their complexes about tornado safety and know where to go if danger threatens.
Years ago, the county’s emergency management center was located on the top floor of the law enforcement center, but when the 2008 tornado slammed into Kearney, county officials realized the folly of that top-floor office.
Lewis, hired here in 2003, initially talked to the county and the city about a shared partnership for emergency services, and in February 2008, when voters approved a $24.5 million bond for a new justice center, then-County Supervisor Timothy Loewenstein championed creating a single emergency operations center inside it.
Lewis said, “Without his knowledge and understanding of the need, this place may not be here today.”
As plans unfolded, Lewis visited 15 such operations centers in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Missouri.
“I knew what I wanted, but I took a lot of ideas away from all the places I visited. The most important question I asked was, ‘What did you do that didn’t work out so well?’ At one place in Kansas, they didn’t have enough storage space. They had boxes all over,” he said.
He also learned that Wichita spent $6.5 million on its emergency operations center, but its internet-connected telephones wouldn’t work in a power failure.
An equipped kitchen was essential, too. “We could be down here for days and weeks after a major disaster,” he said.
After the county carved out the space, Lewis sat down with an emergency operations task force and mapped out a plan.
The center was funded 50 percent with federal Homeland Security funds, 25 percent city funds and 25 percent county funds.
The emergency center opened in the basement of the jail in February 2010. It serves as a base of operations during major disasters. It houses the county’s backup 911 system, amateur radios and power sources.
His “ground zero” has numerous desks that, after a major disaster, can be used by law enforcement, search and rescue, hazmat, public health, public works and utilities, schools, transportation and representatives of the American Red Cross, the United Way of the Kearney Area and the Salvation Army. This area was heavily used after the floods in 2019.
On the office’s south side are three rooms full of technology and screens and other equipment. On the walls, large screens allow Lewis and others to track radar and warnings.
“We planned everything you see in the room, plus a ton of technology that you don’t see,” he said. He pointed to the office’s blank west-side wall and tiny cameras near the ceiling that can display diagrams, maps, strategies and more on that wall.
The emergency center also has a small room for ARES volunteers where they can communicate with the outside world after an emergency, whether it be Lincoln or Omaha or with other ham radio operators. They can send text messages and transmit photos of disasters.
“They’re vital,” Lewis said. “They help the general public stay safe.”
He noted that ARES volunteers pay for their own gasoline, tires, insurance and wear and tear on their vehicles. They also need licenses and Federal Communications Commission materials. Their only funding comes through club dues.
However, he said, “These days, it’s harder to get younger people involved. So many people are streaming videos and calling and texting that in an emergency, cellphones don’t work very well, but amateur radio works,” Lewis said.
“After the hurricane in Puerto Rico, it was the amateur radio guys who kept communications going there. After 9/11, when New York lost major components, amateur radio volunteers stepped up and provided communication,” he said.
“We know how important they are to emergency response and emergency recovery.”