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Why no warning?

Becky Vargo and Emma Dale • Jul 13, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Ottawa County emergency dispatchers were on the phone with the National Weather Service 10 minutes before a devastating storm hit Grand Haven’s shore early Friday.

At that time, forecasters were still projecting winds at 60 mph, said Tim Smith, executive director of the Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority.

“When it came onshore, it exploded with energy,” he said.

Nobody could have predicted what happened, Smith said. Because of that, there was no chance to activate the emergency sirens in advance of the onslaught.

Dispatchers will activate warning sirens throughout the county for two reasons. One is if they get official notification from the National Weather Service, Smith said. The other is if there are sustained winds of 70 mph or more.

The wind was blowing at 60 mph minutes before the storm hit shore shortly before 3 a.m. Friday.

Once the storm hit, Ottawa County Central Dispatch was inundated with calls. It was shortly after 3 a.m. that dispatchers were instructed to activate the warning sirens.

The storm was tracking from the northwest portion of the county to the southeast section, Smith said. Dispatchers activated the sirens by quadrant and it appeared the system was working properly, Smith said.

But the sirens never sounded.

“We began getting questions from the general public as to why the sirens did not go off during the weather event,” Smith said. 

So, the authority investigated and discovered a mechanical failure in a backup generator at a remote communication site, he said. 

The generator has since been repaired and new technology has allowed Central Dispatch to add “redundancy,” Smith said. That’s why they will be testing the sirens again this Friday.

Ottawa County Emergency Management also checks the sirens three times a day, and the system was working earlier last Friday, the director said.

With today’s advanced technology, Smith said a new warning system would be in place within the next 6-12 months. It will be similar to receiving an Amber Alert, he said. This warning would be in addition to the emergency sirens, Smith added.

Hundreds of calls 

Ottawa County dispatchers logged 313 calls for help between 3 and 4 a.m. Friday, Smith said.

“That’s an average of 5.2 calls per minute,” he noted. “It was absolutely unbelievable.”

The calls were about trees down, roads blocked, wires down, and arcing and sparking power lines. Smith said they still had the usual medical emergency calls during the time, as well.

A Grand Haven man was killed during the storm when a large tree fell on his home in the Highland Park neighborhood.

Based on storm predictions, Smith said the dispatch center was staffed early Friday at its normal nightly level of five people. Officials immediately called in more staff and, by 5 a.m., 14 people were working the phones.

One dispatcher was delayed on her way in when she hit a downed tree, Smith said. She was not injured.

Smith said between 12:01 a.m. Friday and 12:01 a.m. Saturday, dispatchers took 1,200 911 calls and handled 976 incidents.

From the National Weather service

The National Weather Service reported wind gusts approaching 90 mph during the early-morning storm, which flattened trees and caused power outages that lasted several days.

But why didn’t we know a storm this strong was coming? 

Cort Scholten, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids, said the weather bureau issued an advisory stating there could be wind gusts Thursday night into Friday morning, which could have a “chance of damaging winds.” He said the NWS didn’t know the extent of damage that could occur, and it wasn’t until about 2:30 a.m. when the bureau released a “severe thunderstorm warning.” By that time, the storm was already battering the Lakeshore.

Scholten said what happened early Friday isn’t “too common.”

The storm featured a “bow echo” that had a concentrated area of wind with a line of thunderstorms. These systems can produce severe straight-line winds and occasionally tornadoes, causing major damage.  

“(It was) really a meteorological chance, what happened in West Michigan,” Scholten said.

Scholten explained that the NWS issues a warning when wind gusts are expected to reach 60 mph or more. In Grand Haven, wind gusts officially reached 88 mph, with wind speeds diminishing the farther inland the storm moved.

Scholten said the reports of 103 mph winds taken on a personal weather station in Grand Haven Township could have had a technical glitch, and he doesn’t know if that number is “100 percent for sure.” He said winds topping 100 mph often results in roofs being blown off buildings.

Since this storm didn’t result in such damage, that gives the NWS a clue to gauge the estimate of how high the gusts actually were.

Firefighters run from call to call

Grand Haven Township Fire Chief Tom Gerencer said he was awakened early Friday morning when his pager toned out an alert that Ottawa County was under a severe thunderstorm warning.

“My pager woke me up at 2:34 a.m.,” he said.

As required, Gerencer turned it to an “open” mode, which allows him to hear calls from all area fire departments, and went back to sleep.

“I woke up to the howling wind, bright flashes like crazy and trees snapping,” he said.

Gerencer said he and his wife, Laurie, then headed for the basement of their home. That’s when his pager toned out the first emergency call for his department.

“I jumped in my truck to go to work and got hit by a branch on the way,” he said.

Fortunately, it was a small branch, but it makes one really think about the dangers of being out in a storm like that, he said.

Gerencer said he never heard any emergency sirens, but didn’t expect that to happen with a thunderstorm warning.

Grand Haven Township firefighters responded to 36 calls between 2:57 a.m. and 10 p.m. Friday.

“We were dragging by the end of the day,” Gerencer said.

Most of the calls were “lines down,” but firefighters took the priority calls first, such as trees on houses (16 of them) and gas lines ruptured (two).

A 13-year-old boy suffered a foot injury while clearing debris with a hatchet Friday afternoon and was transported by ambulance to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Gerencer said. The boy’s injuries were not life-threatening.

“I don’t think anybody expected these isolated straight-line winds,” the township fire chief said. “It was like 1998, only not as widespread.”

Grand Haven Township Manager Bill Cargo said the storm woke him, but he didn’t realize how bad it was until later in the morning.

“I just think we were very fortunate that more people didn’t lose their lives,” he said. “There were some close calls.”

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