Carlson technology helps in disaster clean-up

By Karen Cummings • June 7th, 2016
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Carlson Software helped with the clean-up in Joplin, Missouri, five years ago this past May and it can help now as more severe storms and tornadoes have recently hit the Midwest and the southern states hard.

In remembrance of the fifth anniversary of the EF5-rated multiple-vortex tornado that struck Joplin that just passed on May 22, the following is a first-person account of the storm, the clean-up, and the rebuilding.

Technology helps in Joplin clean-up
By Brad Ezell, Jeff Asbell Excavating & Trucking, Carl Junction, Missouri

Somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of Joplin, a southwestern Missouri town made famous by its location on Route 66, was destroyed and a total of 162 people lost their lives when a tornado ripped through the very heart of the city on May 22, 2011.

I was at my grandfather’s in Oronogo, about nine miles from Joplin that day, helping him out by trimming trees, but I could see that a storm was growing.

I know weather. I’m a pilot so I’m very observant of the weather and we do get tornadoes in our area. At least every two years, there’s one within a 20-mile range, so I know what the sky looks like when a tornado might be coming.

This one was different. I could tell it was going to be a big one. The clouds were growing over Parsons, Kansas, about 40 miles to the east. They were towering funny and for the longest time weren’t moving. I pulled it up on the radar and saw that all of a sudden it was building a section to the west, which storms don’t do. It wasn’t heading to my Grandfather’s house, but it looked like it was heading toward my house in Carl Junction, also about nine miles from Joplin, but more in the path of the storm.

Joplin, Mo., soon after the tornado.

The May 22, 2011, tornado in Joplin, Mo., caused extensive damage.

I told my grandfather to stay put and I decided to take off after it, even though I should have just stayed where it was safe.

Luckily, I never caught up with it and it went south of my house. I ended up coming into Joplin right after it hit. It could not have been worse. It was truly unreal what this thing did.

The tornado cut a drastic swath as it actually touched down at the city limits of Joplin — a city with close to 50,000 residents — and ended as it exited the city limits. They are now saying it was a category EF-5 tornado, the highest or worst, described as “incredible” in the Fajita scale.

When it got to St. John’s Hospital, the tornado was at its maximum strength.  The Home Depot was leveled, Walmart destroyed. Churches, schools, fire stations, apartment buildings and innumerable homes damaged or destroyed.

GPS & Carlson to the rescue

Amid all this destruction, close to 2000 electric power transformers were down, many of them leaking oil,  which was their coolant, into the environment.  This was when the local electrical utility contacted us at Asbell Excavating.

Carlson Software and GPS helped with the Joplin clean-up

Carlson GPS helped with locating downed transformers.

We had had experience doing this kind of a clean-up three years before when nearby, but much smaller Pitcher, Oklahoma, was hit by an F-4 tornado. They needed us to find all of the downed transformers, note their location, then go back and clean up the spills. We certainly had a lot of work on our plate.

With downed transformers all over the city, we didn’t know how we were going to locate all of them in the first place and then be able to quickly and efficiently go back to clean them up.

I contacted Brad Bryant at Laser Specialists with my needs for a relatively low cost, portable GPS system and they put me in touch with Aaron Newman of Carlson Software.  Aaron listened to what we were looking for and he told us about the Carlson Supervisor tablet* and its ability to utilize the on-board GPS that would enable us to get the results we needed. Initially, we sent out several crews with inexpensive handheld GPS units to gather up all of the locations of the downed spills.  We had to work fast to limit the amount of contamination.

Using Carlson integrated GPS to locate spills

Using GPS to locate spills

All of the gathered points were put into an Excel spread sheet; then I put them into Carlson Takeoff, the estimating and modeling software from Carlson that we already had at Asbell. I use Takeoff a lot in our regular work and find it gives me a lot of options.

I loaded the Takeoff file into a CRD file and put it on the Supervisor and off we went to take care of the spills. Due to the format in which they were recorded, I ended up having to convert the points to the Missouri State Plane Coordinate System, but it all worked smoothly.

The Carlson Supervisor was perfect. It gave us the ability, with integrated GPS, to go back and locate the spills. We could just throw it in the truck and easily bring it along with us as we went from spill to spill.

Some spills had a lot to clean up and others hardly any at all, but it was our job to meet the EPA standards. We took all that we removed to a certified landfill and dug down and did grid samples to make sure the oil was cleaned up.

More clean-up and recovery work

The Supervisor also came in handy when we got a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to do a site plan for a vegetative debris grind site, a place to dispose of all the downed trees and other vegetation.

Used Carlson Takeoff to design debris site plan

Debris site plan

Once again, I used Carlson Takeoff to lay out the site plan, then we used the Supervisor on site to execute the plan.

Following that, we worked with the “Extreme Makeover” show, which built seven houses in seven days in Joplin the October following the tornado, a huge undertaking.  We did the earthwork to prepare the sites, luckily prior to the actual filming so there weren’t thousands of people running around.

I’m happy to say that Joplin is on its way back.  All of us at Asbell Excavating were glad that we had the right tools to do our part.

*Looking Ahead, Being Prepared. Cities or communities can now locate all of their transformers (and much more) and “put them on the map” utilizing a ruggedized handheld and Carlson SurvPC data collection software and Esri®. This can be done, as Asbell Excavating did, following a disaster, or map them all out ahead of time to make clean-up much more efficient if a disaster should strike. Learn more…

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