New Jackson chief has trial by storm

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

On May 2, James Humphreys was still a detective lieutenant for the Jackson Police Department, a man who performed admirable work mostly without the public's attention.

That afternoon, he was promoted to chief, a fulfillment of his career dream. This is the town where he wants to raise his children; it's the town where he wants to retire.

Four days after his promotion, in the blink of a tornado, amid a pitch-black town, with a police and fire station in shambles and people in danger, the spotlight shone brightly on the new man in charge.

And though he deflects any positive attention to his men and his peers who assisted, those around him say Humphreys passed his first demanding test with flying colors.

Currently, Humphreys and the rest of his department -- 26 staff members and a K-9 named Baron -- are operating out of the old sheriff's department building, a building that has ceiling tiles missing, stains in the carpet from roof leaks and cardboard Clorox boxes filled withsupplies and paperwork stacked all around. The building's damage isn't due to the tornado, but from a building that has been empty for about two years.

Regardless, it's hardly a glamorous way to start the first few weeks as the new police chief, but Humphreys is anything but bitter.

"Everything is pretty temporary, but we've got what we need," he said. "We're running as smoothly as could be expected. The sheriff is even going to have the carpets shampooed for us. They have treated us so well."

While Humphreys won't personally accept credit for the way the department responded to the tornado's aftermath, he's the first to admit the tornado blew apart his immediate plans as chief.

Instead of meeting with each member of the department, assessing needs and formulating long-term goals and strategies, he and his officers have largely been directing traffic through a tornado path, securing damaged sites from looters and moving their materials out of a roofless building into temporary offices and trailers.

"The tornado totally interrupted everything as far as my transition," he said. "Some plans I had for early on will just have to wait. That stuff will come. My main thing is that the guys in the department went through a great ordeal and everybody just came through."

Aldermen and other public officials have expressed admiration for the way Humphreys kept his cool in the aftermath.

Brad Golden, the emergency operations coordinator and fire chief for the city, was the ultimate man in charge after the tornado hit.

He directed Humphreys to coordinate all the law enforcement that came to assist, including help from the city of Cape Girardeau.

"I think he did a really good job," Golden said.

Humphreys had just arrived at his home outside Jackson when he heard that a funnel cloud was spotted in Bollinger County. He called Lisa Miller, the communications supervisor who was the dispatcher May 6. He told her to keep him updated on the weather.

A short time later, she called back and told him a tornado was on the ground in Jackson.

And the phone went dead.

"That scared me to death," Humphreys said.

When he got to the station, or what was left of the station, he first assessed his department. Rain was pouring through the roof of the building, but Humphreys was worried more about his men. Once he found out that his men and the lone prisoner being held in custody were OK, he began organizing a victim assessment campaign.

Because the tornado knocked out power across town, the city was black. Several minutes after the tornado struck, another wave of heavy rain and small hail pelted the area. Trees blocked the roads that led to the damaged homes and flash flooding made traveling difficult on some other roads. The rotten vapor of natural gas seeped from leaking lines all over town.

It was the job of the police department to venture into the dark, wet disaster zone and relay the information back to the emergency operations center, which Golden set up at the basement of the county administrative building. They were assigned to different areas and went in pairs from house to house, checking to make sure everyone was OK.

It is those men and the dispatchers, Humphreys said, who should be given praise. The police relayed information back to the EOC and rescuers responded to help some victims crawl out of their homes. Utility workers hurriedly responded to close off gas leaks.

No one was seriously injured.

Humphreys said his job was made much easier because of the outside assistance at his disposal. He said the city's different departments worked well together and several law enforcement veterans, Cape Girardeau police chief Steve Strong, for example, came to his side and helped with organization.

After already working an eight-hour day shift Tuesday, Jackson Lt. Bob Bonney worked with Humphreys for 24 hours straight as the department's mission changed from seek-and-rescue to traffic control and neighborhood security.

"I put a lot on his shoulders," Humphreys said of Bonney. "He really came through for me."

Bonney was impressed with his boss too.

"He was thrown into the fire," Bonney said. "And he did a great job for the city."

Humphreys, who said those first few days after the tornado are a blur, hopes the disaster will ultimately bring the department closer together.

"I've got great people with me, that's what helps get through these tough times," Humphreys said. "My approach is to have a team-concept atmosphere. That's what I saw right off the bat. I didn't hear any complaining. I only heard helping."

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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