Vermeer on Lessons Learned After Direct Hit Tornado

ALTOONA, Iowa- At the Governor’s Health and Safety Conference, one presentation drew quite a bit of interest. Steve Flann, of Vermeer Company of Pella told the safety professionals, how his company weathered a tornado’s direct hit.

Several funnels dipped out of an angry-looking cloud on July 19th. Having 2500 people on site working is a big safety concern, but on this day it was the company’s 70th anniversary there were many visitors.

At an afternoon conference call the safety team members expressed concern as a tornado watch was issued. They discussed all the extra people they would have to protect, in case of a storm.

As the storm approached guests were taken to a FEMA approved tornado shelter, built to the safest standard possible.

After 30 minutes of waiting, nothing happened. A weather service paid for by Vermeer issued an “all clear.” As word got out to the safety team, one member issued a strong objection.

“He gets on the radio he says hold everyone in their shelters, do not give the all clear and at that moment within just a few minutes we have that tornado hit,” said Flann. “In the shelter, one of our EAS professionals told me, it was like the tornado was sucking my brain out of my ears.”

Once the tornado had passed another dilemma. People came out of the shelter to find open sky where there once was a roof. Also there were shards of glass and tangled metal.

“We have people come out of the shelters it’s pitch black,” shards of glass, you see the sun or the clouds you’re disoriented,” said Flann. “It is kind of crazy moment and folks really ask what do we do, do we stay in our shelters. or do we get out of here?”

Gas lines inside the plants were also ruptured. By chance a gas company worker was at a motel across town. The sun was shining there, and no tornado. He heard on his radio what was going on, and he made his way to the plant master valve, and turned it off.

Vermeer also learned the value of two-way radios. Some team members did not know how to use the radio, and didn’t push the button before they started talking. But in a disaster like this, cell phones were not of much use, as everyone was on their phone at once. The company learned the value of having multiple radio channels, and training employees on their use.

“Everybody’s calling everybody, so everybody in town’s trying to call in, those radios were invaluable for us,” said Flann.

Vermeer also had a text system advising employees what to expect hour by hour.

The company also appreciated the local fire and police. Emergency crews had visited the Vermeer facilities before, so in an emergency, they knew about the plant layout.

Lastly the company took extra care to meet with employees. Many were worried they would no longer have a job. Work did cease for some temporarily.

“Thirty days later 100 per cent of our Vermeer team members were back at work,” said Flann. “We want to take this opportunity to be able to share a lot of our lessons learned, we hope you never have to go through something like this.”