On May 20, 2013, Moore, Oklahoma was struck by an EF-5 tornado that tested community preparedness in a town that had been devastated in May, 1999 by another EF-5 tornado. In the 1999 storm, 36 people lost their lives in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area and the town was left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of a record breaking tornado.
Community Preparedness in Tornado Alley
As a result of the 1999 tornado, which set a record of wind speeds over 300 mph, there were changes to recommendations for shelter response. Previously, it was thought that if caught in the open, seeking shelter underneath an overpass would offer safety. Instead, several deaths resulted during this tornado because of flying debris being funneled through the overpass, striking anyone seeking shelter underneath the overpass.
Additionally, due to the extreme stresses on structures, recommendations were made for storm shelters and safe rooms to be constructed for the community. In May, 2003, the 6,016 shelters were put to the test from an EF-4 tornado ripping through the community on May 3rd. No lives were lost during that outbreak.
The improvements in weather forecasting resulted in earlier alerts, watches and finally warnings being issued, which allowed alert citizens to better monitor the weather and up to 16 minutes of warning to obtain shelter or evacuate once the tornado appeared. Living in “tornado alley” and learning from each devastating event has led to changes in how local residents respond to the threat.
Most experts have long advised against trying to outrun a tornado, yet according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, that is exactly what local residents have done. This local experience enabled many residents of a tract house neighborhood to escape with their lives as a result of ignoring government recommendations to seek shelter in closets, bathrooms or similar inner rooms of a house above ground. The neighborhood structures were completely devastated, leaving only concrete foundations remaining, proving the point that most structures above ground simply cannot withstand the incredible forces such tornadoes exhibit. Underground shelters have been found to be the most effective refuge against such massive tornadoes.
As a result of repeated large scale tornadoes striking in and around Moore, community preparedness planning was tested and weaknesses, as well as strengths were identified. Programs to ensure new construction included reinforced “safe rooms” or underground storm shelters. These shelters, in particular, their location, were registered either locally or through the state.
As a result, after the devastation of entire neighborhoods, including street signs and other identifying landmarks, search crews were able to locate shelters buried under debris more quickly and enable the citizens to escape from the shelters. Citizens themselves began immediately assisting in their areas to rescue people trapped in collapsed structures or injured by flying debris.
Incredibly enough, emergency crews, both locally and from neighboring jurisdictions, were able to complete search, rescue and recovery operations in remarkably short order. Communications were precarious, though text messaging capabilities came through when very little else was functional. Although there was some looting, due to the massive law enforcement support from neighboring communities, it was very limited in scope. Citizens, even those who have lost everything, pitched in to begin the clean-up effort and helping their neighbors.
Churches offered locations for command centers and meeting places for anxious parents awaiting reunification with their children. The pastors and other church personnel assisted in reassuring and comforting those in need. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallon quickly organized state resources to assist in the recovery effort, with inter-jurisdictional cooperation and coordination evident in the rapid emplacement of resources put to bear on local needs for shelter, food, water and other needs.
Hospitals were ready for the injured, personnel already staged and shifts prepared to prevent overwhelming the available personnel. As information became available, news releases were prepared from hospitals, the Governor and emergency response teams to inform neighboring areas, even requesting that further emergency help was not needed due to the overwhelming response.
Community Preparedness is a Community Effort
In spite of the utter devastation of the landscape and the loss of 24 lives, nine being children, Moore, Oklahoma and the surrounding communities are demonstrating the resilience of a community that has taken to heart the lessons learned from each emergency event. Grateful for having survived, the prevailing spirit is that of rebuilding and learning how to be better and stronger for the next time. The community is also comforting and supporting those who have lost loved ones or homes.
It is this community involvement and engagement that makes the emergency planning efforts and activities successful. Citizens, being on the scene, are often the first to respond and those efforts often make the difference in lives saved or lives lost. When those involved in the emergency response can encourage and develop this engagement in a community, recovery after such a catastrophic event is achieved more quickly than would have been possible otherwise, both psychologically and structurally.
As the dust settles and more information on this disaster is reported, heroic efforts of citizens are being discovered. Neighbors opening their shelters to those not having one, pulling others from rubble and making a human chain to pass children out of a collapsed school serve to inspire and model effective survival and preparedness skills for others.
The rapid and effective response of emergency crews, establishment of command centers, communications and reunification efforts are a testament to effective emergency planning, leadership and citizen engagement. Though each disaster reveals weaknesses or newly discovered threats, there is no doubt that Moore will respond well and prepare before the next event.
Does your community have this level of engagement in community preparedness? If not, why not? What do you think can be done to improve community preparedness in your area? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.