SIKESTON -- As part of a volunteer organization formed to help assess the integrity of buildings following disasters, Sikeston's engineers were instrumental in helping Caruthersville sort things out following the April tornado.
Overwhelmed by the number of building inspections that were needed in Caruthersville and other areas of Pemiscot and Dunklin counties following the tornado, the Pemiscot County officials asked the State Emergency Management Agency to activate Structural Assessment Visual Evaluation Coalition inspectors in the area.
The Missouri legislature approved the creation of the SAVE Coalition volunteer building inspection program for post-earthquake response in 1991.
"There was a solicitation to area engineers, and most of us responded I think," recalled John Chittenden, president of Waters Engineering in Sikeston.
Since then, the legislation has been expanded to include post-disaster building inspections for all hazards.
Chittenden, along with two other Waters engineers, Darral Hirtz and Brad Smith, were glad to answer SEMA's call for help.
"Caruthersville is one of our regular clients and we were already on the scene that afternoon to see what we could do to help," Chittenden said.
The Waters engineers had traveled to the disaster site to inspect the city's water and waste water systems along with other essential services "to see what was wrong with them and see what it would take to get them back on line," Chittenden said. "Fortunately there wasn't a lot of damage with those."
There was, however, extensive damage to hundreds of structures that had to be assessed. The Waters engineers were among the 15 SAVE Coalition inspectors activated by SEMA to determine which buildings were safe and which were not.
Volunteer inspectors are trained to not enter damaged structures. Based on their visual evaluations and checklists, they post one of three colored placards on the outside of inspected buildings.
A green placard indicates the building has no apparent damage and can be safely occupied.
Yellow means the building has sustained damage and residents usually have a limited or restrictive type use until specific repairs can be made.
Buildings with a red placard have sustained serious damage and can not be safely occupied.
"We went down and probably looked at over 250 structures ourselves," Chittenden said. "We spent about three or four days down there with the SAVE Coalition."
"Over three and a half days, the SAVE volunteers conducted 1,100 building inspections in Caruthersville (and) Pemiscot and Dunklin counties. Their expertise helped the local officials make tough rebuilding/demolition housing decisions," said Ron Reynolds, SEMA director, in a press release. "These volunteers did an exceptional job under hazardous post-tornado conditions."
Each two-man inspection team worked from dawn until dusk and was accompanied by a member of the Missouri State Highway Patrol with global positioning capability, according to SEMA.
"They had that to help us figure out where we were -- it was really hard to recognize things," Chittenden said, even after 25 years of working in Caruthersville. "It looked so different you really had to look around to see where you were. It was horrible -- it's hard to imagine how bad that was."
Waters Engineering also ended up providing help beyond that usually asked of SAVE Coalition volunteers.
"At an out-briefing the maps that were provided did not supply data sufficient enough to map coordinates of the tornado path and the damage it left behind," said Joseph Randazzo, SAVE coordinator for the response effort, in a recent press release. "As luck would have it, one of the Southeast Missouri volunteers was able to return to his engineering office and plot a map of Caruthersville for unified command coordination as well as individual maps for each inspection team to plot their movement and inspection data."
"We had some maps we had assembled for our use down there," Chittenden explained. "They were on a computer and we were able to facilitate the mapping for the structures that were damaged."
"Our volunteers are professionals and their boots-on-the-ground inspections validated the training SEMA provides," Randazzo said. "They performed their duties as they were trained and functioned superbly as teams. Our volunteers are problem solvers."
"I think it went pretty well," Chittenden said. "We came home feeling tired, but good."
While there are currently approximately 1,000 certified SAVE Coalition volunteers in the state, SEMA has activated the SAVE Coalition only two other times: in 2000 for flooding in Madison County and in 2004 for tornadoes in Stockton, Pierce City and Liberty.
For more information on becoming a SAVE Coalition volunteer, contact SEMA's Jason Schneider at 573-526-9119 or by e-mail at Jason.Schneider@sema.dps.mo.gov.