As the word "tornado" started showing up more and more in weather forecasts on April 26, Hamilton County officials were ramping up the Emergency Operations Center.
The spacious room, based inside the 9-1-1 Communication Center on Amnicola Highway, is outfitted to transform instantly into the county's nerve center, coordinating response efforts and communicating with state and federal agencies.
Placards mark dozens of computer consoles designated for agencies including the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, law enforcement, the Red Cross, utility companies and the Department of Education.
"It's where we all come together, where we circle the wagons," said Bill Tittle, chief of emergency management for Hamilton County. "The role this room plays is extremely important."
Throughout the day and into the evening of April 27, every console was full. Four large wall screens displayed live radar weather updates and constantly updated maps that tracked the growing swaths of tornado damage and pinpointed the locations where nine county residents died. Three smaller televisions broadcast local news and weather alerts.
Dozens of tornadoes wreaked havoc across the tri-state region from early morning to sundown that day.
Tour the emergency management centerDuring the April 27 tornadoes the Hamilton County Emergency Management Center was the central location for dispatching first responders in the Hamilton County area and providing additional resources where needed. Watch as Bill Tittle gives a tour of the center.
Six months after staging the most extensive emergency response efforts they have ever had to muster, local emergency management agencies still are assessing how they performed in the chaotic aftermath.
Besides having to respond to 81 tornado-related deaths, workers across the region had to care for hundreds of injured and aid thousands of people facing days without shelter, water or power.
The tornadoes ravaged whole communities. Some local emergency management agencies were able to follow well-rehearsed disaster plans to the letter, while others were forced to improvise for an event they never had planned for.
"Comparing one county's response to another is kind of like comparing apples to oranges," said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates emergency management in the state. "Each one had different needs and different resources at their disposal that day."
Bledsoe County set up its main emergency command post at Jackson's General Merchandise off New Harmony Road. There were no computers, just one land-line phone before a local company installed a few more for responders.
Bledsoe EMA Director Paul Putnam said he wanted the operations center to be as close as possible to the top of Brayton Mountain, where four people were killed in the area known as Pitts Gap.
"That was the closest we could get to all the damage up on the mountain, and that's where everyone came," Putnam said. "One nice thing about being in a rural area is you've got all these neighbors showing up with chain saws and four-wheelers."
As different as Bledsoe and Hamilton County's approaches were, officials with both agencies say they would change only a few things if faced with another April 27.
Other counties are overhauling their emergency plans completely.
"Every assumption we had made in our old plan, we now have to re-evaluate," said Victor Manning, who became EMA director in DeKalb County, Ala., in August after the previous director retired.
"Nobody would have ever imagined tornadoes on the ground for miles, killing 35 people here and causing millions of dollars of damage," Manning said. "Nobody would have expected power to be out for seven days countywide. Nobody would have planned that all surrounding counties wouldn't be able to help us. Now that's happened, and so we have to move our bar."
The obstacles that DeKalb's emergency responders faced were mirrored across the region -- roads clogged with trees and debris, crippled cell phone service and days on end without electricity.
"We were expecting power outages, so I don't think we were caught by surprise," Tittle said. "But there was just so much going on that day, it was tricky knowing how to prioritize."
Just the power outages "created an incredible volume of need," Manning said. "From elderly people and their oxygen machines to farmers needing to power their chicken houses."
One of the most disturbing problems agencies faced, many EMA directors said, was how the sheer scale of the damage swept away longstanding mutual aid plans.
Counties across the region often have informal pacts to share resources and manpower if one faces an overwhelming disaster. But on that day, every county was facing the same disaster.
"Each community had their own problems to take care of," said Manning. "We've never seen that before."
On April 27, Hamilton County crews had calls for assistance coming from almost all its surrounding counties, Tittle said.
"It was so frustrating because we wanted to help so much. But all our resources were committed. Everyone was on call, and our reserve units were in service," he said.
In some rural counties such as DeKalb, critically injured patients had to wait more than 12 hours for transport to intensive care units in Chattanooga and Birmingham, Ala., because counties on all sides were overwhelmed with tornado damage.
When the fourth wave of tornadoes rampaged through Bradley County about 7:40 p.m., dispatchers received 49 calls from people who said they were trapped in their house or injured.
"It was chaotic," said Bradley EMA director Troy Spence. "We had nine deaths. ... EMS had to decide to delay the pickup of the fatalities, because there were so many other people who needed help. It sounds cruel and inhumane, but we couldn't let someone suffering wait."
PLANS AND PRACTICE
Spence and Tittle said their counties' proximity to Sequoyah Nuclear Plant helped them in disaster preparedness because they are expected to have watertight plans that are constantly updated and evaluated annually by state and federal agencies.
Still, they are constantly looking for ways to get better. Tittle said one of Hamilton County's biggest goals is to create more comprehensive storm warning systems.
"We all knew for several days that this outbreak was coming, and still some people were not prepared," he said. "The public doesn't monitor weather events as much as we would like for them to."
As a result, the agency is looking to harness social media to extend the reach of emergency alerts into people's Facebook news updates and Twitter feeds.
Jackson County, Ala., also is upgrading its alert system, recently investing in a program that allows residents to plug contact information into an online database to receive phone updates in case of a widespread emergency.
As DeKalb County EMA creates an entirely new emergency plan, Manning's tack is to welcome brutal honesty. The agency has sent out scores of surveys asking everyone involved in storm relief to evaluate the county's overall response.
"We need to see what things we did right, what things we did wrong, what things we can plan for in the future," he said.
"As we get these surveys back in, I think it's going to be very glaring what our shortfalls are. ... And I want to see those, so we can get better."