September 11th tornado warning and AQ CARES timely responses

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Warnings sent to Aquinas students on September 11, 2019. Photo courtesy Anna-Jo Stuart.

Story by Anna-Jo Stuart, Opinion Editor

Photo courtesy of Anna-Jo Stuart

On September 11th, the Grand Rapids area was hit with a sudden severe storm. A tornado warning issue was issued at 7:59 p.m., and the sirens were sounded at that time.

The storm created a lot of structural damage in some parts of Kent County, but after surveying the damage the National Weather Service determined that while damage was caused by winds between 60 and 80 mph and gusts of up to 100 mph, there were no tornado touchdowns. Many were left without power, including Aquinas College.

With it being only 8:00 p.m. when the storm hit, many students were out around campus. Some were attending their night classes, others were studying or just enjoying their Wednesday night. 

Noah Haran, a junior at Aquinas, stated that he was in the weight room at Sturrus when the storm hit. He said that he was unable to hear the sirens when they went off, and would not have known that he needed to take shelter if the front desk worker had not told him.

Ally Kennedy, a hockey player at Aquinas, was driving to practice when the worst of the storm hit Grand Rapids. She said that she was about five minutes from campus when she had to pull over due to low visibility. She was unaware of the severity of the oncoming storm.

Another student reported that she was in class in the Academic Building when the sirens went off, but she remembers that it took a few minutes for her class to hear them and that they were confused about what they should do. 

RA Kaitlin Goodenough’s experience during the storm was a good example of the confusion seen around campus. In a group chat with other RAs, there was a discussion about what they should be doing because they were unsure of what was happening with the weather.

She said that she became aware there was a warning before Campus Safety alerted students. However, she was unsure of what exactly needed to be done. She looked at the AQ CARES app to determine that she and her residents needed to move to the basement of her building, but was still unsure of what exactly was happening outside. Deciding to be proactive, she and the other RA in the building began knocking on doors and directing students to the basement.

The AQ CARES message came through after RAs in the East Area decided to alert their residents and move to the basement.

According to the National Weather Service, the tornado warning began at 7:59 p.m. Aquinas College Campus Safety issued their emergency warning via the AQ CARES alert system at approximately 8:10 p.m.

Once the alert came through, students received texts and emails that read, “Emergency Notification: Tornado Warning. Take Action!” The tornado warning expired at 8:30 p.m., and students then received a similar message from AQ CARES at 8:41 p.m. informing them that the warning had expired.

Many students expressed concern about how long it took for Campus Safety to release an emergency notification.

In fact, when students received the alerts in the basement of AB while already taking cover, they began to laugh and joke about how useless that alert was for them. Noah Haran says that because he did not receive the notification until the warning was over “it wasn’t helpful” to him.

Zenon Cardenas Jr., Deputy Director of Campus Safety, described Campus Safety’s severe weather policy:

The policy is for Campus Safety personnel to monitor weather conditions on all shifts, in the event that the possibility of severe weather is confirmed in the vicinity of Aquinas College than the Campus Safety Department will notify the Director of Campus Safety or his designee on the potential for severe weather.  The Director of Campus Safety will confer with the appropriate personnel in order to make the best decision possible for the Aquinas College community.” When asked about how well this policy was executed on September 11th, he said that the policy was complied with and that the warnings were issued to students in a “timely manner”.

When asked what Campus Safety’s response to student concerns on how delayed the messages were, Cardenas had a two-part response.

He stated that the AQ CARES message takes longer to send out than the fire department’s sirens because the fire department is a First Response Governmental Agency. Thus they have the staff, resources, and systems in place to quickly send out the warning.

Due to the time it takes to send out a message about a severe weather warning, Cardenas stated that there are talks to expand AQ CARES to be used for severe weather watches as well as warnings.

After this event, students have expressed a desire for faster notifications from AQ CARES in the event of on-campus emergencies.

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