If an F4 tornado ripped through Western Fairfax County, it is the county’s emergency response team’s hope that a recovery effort would be organized and on the ground within two hours.
The county has been testing its tornado management scenario with a three-day exercise, “Operation: Enduring Collaboration,” since Monday, with a fake tornado simulation.
In the simulation, an F4 tornado touched down in Centreville, tore into Chantilly and eventually stopped in Fair Oaks. The event caused the fake deaths of more than 50 people, injured nearly 600, destroyed the Route 28 bridge over I-66, and damaged the county’s waste water management facility, causing hazardous materials to spill into Bull Run.
Again, all of that destruction is part of a simulation, but the county has to know how it will respond if it happens.
“The county has never been challenged with something like this,” said Dave McKernan, the county’s emergency management coordinator, in the situation room of the McConnell Public Safety center in Fairfax.
“What we’re dealing with is the county’s response to this type of an event," he said. “Our job here is to support the public safety folks, the public works folks and the health department folks that are out in the field; the boots on the ground that are assisting our residents.”
More than 80 people filled the room, working through the simulation. By the third day of the situation, McKernan said he and his team were beginning to move their focus from saving lives to beginning the recovery process. More than 100 people were also on the ground, McKernan said, including the hazmat unit at the waste water facility.
Fairfax County has seen weaker tornadoes, he said. In the last year, three tornadoes touched down in the county, including one in Reston.
McKernan said he and his team are continuing to learn from the exercises, but that they can’t do everything in the event of a disaster.
“We are as prepared as a county can be for something like this,” he said. “I will tell you, though, there is a personal preparedness part of this. The county can only do so much. And if it is a truly, truly catastrophic event, our resources are going to overwhelmed, and you may be on your own.”
Residents can prepare for tornadoes by doing the following:
- Buying a NOAA weather radio, or the NOAA weather app for smartphones.
- Sign up for text alerts from their local government.
- Prepare an emergency kit with water, food, medicine and other supplies.
- Learn the warning signs of tornado and how to protect themselves.
- Learn the difference between the terms "tornado warning" and "tornado watch."
For more information on tornado preparedness and Fairfax County's exercise, visit the Fairfax County Emergency Information Blog.