"This is pretty disturbing," said Ron Flanagan as he addressed Tulsans gathered in the Memorial High School auditorium, who came in answer to a request for input from the public on the city's Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan last week.
Flanagan is the head and namesake of R.D. Flanagan and Associates, which was the hazard mitigation consulting firm that helped to put the current plan together in 2002. The company is back this year to help update it, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires of the city by Aug. 4.
The public hearing took place barely 48 hours after seven Oklahomans were killed and more than 150 injured by an F-4 tornado that ripped through Picher last Saturday night.
But, that's not what disturbed Flanagan.
What unsettled him was, even after such a portentous tragedy, only about 10 people showed up to talk about the city's plan in the somewhat likely event that a similar disaster should strike Tulsa, and some of those were reporters, city workers or other people whose attendance was mandatory.
"This turnout is not unusual for this kind of event, but it is unusual for Tulsa," said Flanagan, noting that Bartlesville had a larger turnout when he last worked on that city's plan.
In the citizens' of Tulsa's defense, though, the city's communications department sent out a notice the previous Friday to local news media, and the local daily paper made mention of it the next day on the back page of it's 'Local' section, in a two-inch column.
Flanagan said he barely noticed it himself, and would have missed it if his wife hadn't pointed it out to him.
We mentioned it in UTW last week, but that was only after the fact, because we're a weekly paper.
Flanagan called disaster management "one of the most critically important aspects of government," and said citizen involvement is an indispensable component.
"I'm kind of concerned for the legitimacy of the project, now. It shouldn't be a bunch of consultants getting together to come up with a plan for the city," Flanagan added.
James Lee Witt and Associates, which was a consultant to FEMA during the Clinton administration, is also contributing to the plan. Tulsa Partners and French Wetmore and Associates are also working with the city government.
Flanagan likened the general public's attitude toward disasters to what he called "reverse-Las Vegas logic": people know they have only a 1-in-umpteen-thousand-chance of winning big at the casino, but they put down their money anyway. On the other hand, when it comes to natural disasters, they always think it will happen to someone else, when it's almost a certainty that it will happen to them at some point, especially in Oklahoma, he said.
While most Oklahomans and Tulsans should already know this (but only a handful did anything with that knowledge by showing up to plan for it), Flanagan pointed to the Sooner State's propensity for natural disasters as something to consider when we're placing our bets.
As a place where three different climatic zones converge--hot and arid climate from the west, hot and humid from the southeast and temperate climate from the northeast--Oklahoma is supremely positioned to be Mother Nature's redheaded stepchild, regularly receiving the brunt of her ill-temper and abuse.
Last year's historic and record-setting nine federally declared disasters in the state are testament to the disaster guru's point, as well as the recent tornado in Picher.
"This tornado could have just as easily hit the city of Tulsa," Flanagan preached to the tiny choir, recalling the spate of twisters to rake through Oklahoma on June 8, 1974, which left 18 Tulsans dead.
And, of course, tornadoes aren't the only hazard for which to plan.
"We don't have to talk too much about winter storms, do we?" said Flanagan as his slide presentation turned to the familiar sight of trees and power lines weighed-down and encrusted with ice.
Of course, near-apocalyptic ice storms, drought, dust and wildfires, extreme heat, flooding, high winds, lightning, hail and the usual fare of biblical plagues to regularly visit Oklahoma figured prominently in his discussion, but one potential hazard he mentioned might not immediately come to mind for many Oklahomans: earthquakes.
They obviously aren't as big a concern here as they are in California, or most recently in China, but Flanagan pointed out that 1,523 earthquakes occurred in Oklahoma between 1898 and 1998--about 15 a year, on average, for 100 years.
Most were negligible and undetected except by experts, but not all. The most severe occurred in 1952. Its epicenter was near El Reno and Minco, and it measured 5.0 on the Richter scale and was felt in all surrounding states, as well as Iowa and Nebraska.
To prepare for such hazards, FEMA requires the City of Tulsa to update its plan every five years in order to qualify for disaster-relief assistance, Flanagan explained, hence the call for public input.
Along with involving the public, the planning process also includes coordination between the city of Tulsa and other government agencies and organizations, assessing which hazards are most likely to hit Tulsa, and evaluating what preparations to make.
Examples of preparations are the installation of impact-resistant shingles on homes to protect against hail, lightning warning systems in public schools and recreation fields, and construction of regional detention ponds to prevent flooding, such as the one at 6th St. and Peoria Ave.
"I see people recreating there all the time, which is great, but that's not a park--it's a detention pond to protect against flooding," Flanagan said.
Another example of a mitigation measure is to stock up on generators to ensure the continuation of government agencies in the event of a widespread power outage.
"Continuity of government is FEMA's major objective," said Flanagan, adding, "If the government is out of business, we're all out of business."
Recalling last year's ice storm, he said, "One of the smartest companies in the United States is QuikTrip--Chester Cadieux did an assessment of all his facilities to see how many generators he'd need to keep operating in a power outage, and QuikTrip was the only place people could buy food and gasoline for several weeks."
"But, how many nursing homes, schools and government offices were out of operations during the ice storm?" Flanagan added.
Not only does the city need an updated Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan to qualify for FEMA relief funding, but the agency will also fund up to 75 percent of eligible mitigation projects.
The city government must submit an updated plan to FEMA for approval, and then adopt the plan through an ordinance by the City Council by Aug. 4.
Another public engagement meeting is scheduled for July 21, but the location has yet to be announced.
Bill Robinson, a Public Works supervisor, advised citizens in attendance that there is also a Homeland Security aspect to the planning, in the event of a terrorist attack, but that planning process is not open to the public for obvious security reasons. However, the public can comment on that aspect at the aforementioned July meeting.
Also, City Councilor Rick Westcott advised that citizens can offer input through their councilors, whose e-mail addresses are their respective district, abbreviated as "dist," then the district number, followed by "@tulsacouncil.org." For instance, Westcott's is the 2nd district, so his address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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