In his capacity as the interim director of the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency, Roger Jolliff never reaches a point at which he can stop worrying about the potential for disaster.
He illustrated that point by running through a series of challenges his agency has faced over the past several months. In February, he said, it was a pair of winter storms that brought record-breaking snowfall and low temperatures with it. By early spring, it was a lack of precipitation and the enforcement of a burn ban in Tulsa County. Then came the onset of tornado season.
Last month, Jolliff's agency participated in a state Health Department exercise overseeing management of the Strategic National Stockpile, a national cache of pharmaceutical and medical supplies to be used in times of emergency. This week, TAEMA will oversee an administrative exercise in which it responds to an emergency situation at the Tulsa International Airport. After that, Jolliff said, will come the challenges faced by the stifling summer heat.
"There's a threat for every season," he said. "But we can dramatically improve how we get through any severe weather event by preparing well."
Jolliff's agency -- a joint city-county operation that originated in 1961 as a civil defense measure at the height of Cold War fears -- manages the city-county emergency operations center, as well as the local warning sirens system. He acknowledges the staff (three people) and budget (between $300,000 and $400,000 annually) are small, though he noted the agency could add two more staff members by fall, depending the funding allocation it receives from the city of Tulsa.
"We practice an all-hazards approach to emergency management," he said, a purview that includes both natural and man-made disasters, including acts of terrorism.
While Tulsa has avoided any such emergency situations since those February blizzards, Jolliff need only pick up a newspaper, surf the Internet or turn on his television for a few minutes before he is confronted with the details of disasters that have struck other locales near and far in recent months. Earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, wildfires scorching every county in Texas, a devastating tornado outbreak in the southeastern United States and widespread flooding in the Mississippi River valley are constant reminders that Tulsa needs to be prepared for the worst, he said.
"Any event like that is going to overwhelm a community," Jolliff said, referring to the tornadoes that swept through Alabama and Georgia on April 27, killing hundreds of people. "The real test comes in how quickly you can organize and respond to that event. I am very confident the Tulsa area can respond quickly to an event like that."
TAEMA is joined in its emergency management efforts by a number of other local organizations including Tulsa Partners Inc., a local nonprofit group that was set up in December 2000 to support the city of Tulsa's Project Impact office, a Federal Emergency Management Agency initiative designed to protect families, businesses and communities by reducing the impact of natural disasters. Since that time, says Tim Lovell, the organization's executive director, its work has evolved into creating partnerships between various entities with a stake in handling emergency situations.
While Tulsa Partners does not play an active role in disaster response, Lovell said, it does focus on preparedness, planning and mitigation through three areas of focus. Its Disaster Resistant Business Council educates local business owners on the need for planning how they will survive a disaster, while its language and culture bank provides the first-responder community such as police and fire departments with a mechanism for accessing and providing information to the various cultures that make up the metropolitan area, including non-English speakers.
Tulsa Partners also emphasizes low-impact, sustainable construction techniques, Lovell said.
"The less you try to control nature with man-made concepts, the less the impact is going to be when those disasters occur," he said.
Lovell believes the Tulsa area is better prepared for a catastrophic event than it was 10 years ago, before the events of 9/11 greatly increased public awareness of the issue.
But he still worries about complacency setting in.
"One of the problems is that, over time, when you don't have disasters on a regular basis, you get 'disaster amnesia,'" he said. "People stop preparing for disasters. That's why organizations like ours are needed. We keep putting this in the public eye and get people thinking about it."
In the 1970s and 1980s, disaster amnesia wasn't a problem in Tulsa, Lovell said, mostly because of a series of devastating floods that hit the area. Over a 15-year period, he said, nine federal disaster declarations were issued for the city, primarily because of flooding.
"We had major floods every two years," said Ron Flanagan, the principal planner at R.D. Flanagan & Associates, a Tulsa-based multi-hazard mitigation planning firm, describing that era in the city's history.
Flanagan recalled a 1976 study by Dr. Claire Rubin at George Washington University that rated the nation's most disaster-prone communities. Tulsa was at the top of the list, he said, because of its chronic flooding problems -- "the flood plain wars," as Flanagan calls them.
Tulsa had all but buried its head in the sand in regard to its vulnerability to floods, he said, recalling the case of one house in particular that was located in an area that flooded consistently.
"It was a $30,000 house, which was fairly expensive for that time, and it had collected $100,000 worth of flood insurance payments," he said.
Eventually, he said, residents got fed up with the problem and demanded that city officials do something about it. A group led by then-Mayor Terry Young took the bull by the horns and developed a flood plain management plan for the city that since has become a national model, he said.
Jolliff noted that after 14 people died in a Memorial Day flood in 1984 and the Arkansas River flooded in 1986 after the remnants of Hurricane Ike dumped huge amounts of precipitation on northeast Oklahoma, the city became committed to enforcing its flood plain ordinances. No new buildings were permitted in flood plains, and the structures located there were bought out and relocated or demolished.
"In Tulsa now, you can get one of the highest discounts you can get for flood insurance," he said. "We have very, very little flooding in the city of Tulsa. We can certainly hang our hat on that."
Over the last 30 years, according to Flanagan, more than $500 million has been spent in Tulsa on hazard mitigation projects.
"We have moved probably 15,000 structures from flood vulnerability," he said, lauding the work done by the city's recently retired Public Works director Charles Hardt in regard to flood control. "We've built retention ponds and channel improvements. But the job is not done. We've got another $500 million in projects to do to move everybody from flood hazards."
Flanagan got a fresh reminder of the kind of damage floods are capable of last week when he attended the Association of State Floodplain Managers conference in Louisville, Ky., on the banks of the Ohio River. A few weeks earlier, that area had been subject to the same problems that are now tormenting residents of the lower Mississippi River basin.
"Just look at the Mississippi," Flanagan said by telephone from the conference. "Sometimes with these events, especially in this era of climate change, these things are getting more radical. The Gulf (of Mexico) waters are getting warmer, and that's feeding hurricanes. Those things are going to push a lot of water inland, like we had in 1986 with Hurricane Ike.
"This is not the normal pattern anymore," he said. "We're vulnerable."
Jolliff said Tulsa was actually far ahead of the curve in addressing its chronic flooding problems as early as it did.
"Most disaster mitigation projects did not get going until after 1996 when James Lee Witt became FEMA director and pushed disaster mitigation," he said.
The success of the city's flood-control efforts carried over to the birth of the Project Impact era, he said, explaining that when the city received a FEMA grant for its local initiative, much of the money went unspent because the private sector stepped up and funded many of the mitigation projects itself.
A Change in the Wind
Unfortunately, Jolliff said, it still takes a catastrophe to get the attention of some people. By the end of the 1990s, he said, his agency was forced to work very hard to engage all the community players in disaster-response efforts. But when the terrorist events of 2001 took place, a sea change in attitude resulted, he said.
"(The events of) 9/11 had a dramatic impact," he said. "We saw a marked increase in interest. Different departments quickly became willing to assign people to be involved with us."
Much of the task of planning for and dealing with possible terrorism events falls to the federal and state homeland security departments, though local officials are responsible for that territory, as well, Lovell said.
"We don't necessarily make a distinction (between the two), but much of what we talk about has been on the natural disaster side," he said. "When we can, we tie in the Homeland Security aspect, as well."
Joliff said there are five phases to emergency response -- prevention, preparedness, response, mitigation and recovery. When a disaster occurs, his agency oversees and coordinates the efforts of first responders (police and fire, Public Works, the county engineer and the Health Department) and second responders (social service agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army) from the emergency operations center at 600 Civic Center downtown.
When a crippling ice storm struck the city in December 2007, he said, the EOC was in continuous operation for 11 days, with more than 300 people working there.
"That was the longest activation of the EOC we'd ever had," he said.
Those winter storms are becoming an increasing source of concern, he said. While floods and tornadoes used to rank as the primary challenges for the city's emergency-management system, Jolliff said snow and ice now rank just as high.
"That's exactly right," he said. "We've had more presidential declarations for winter storms since I've been here over the last 13 years for that than for tornadoes."
Lovell noted that the first two blizzard warnings in the history of Tulsa County have come in the last two years -- the Christmas Eve storm of 2009, and the pair of storms that blanketed the city for days in February.
Winter storms are much less forgiving and much broader in scope than other severe weather events, Jolliff said.
"They affect the entire community," he said. "A tornado typically strikes a much smaller part of the community, and you can usually count on the rest of the community to pitch in and help."
That's not to say twisters are any less of a challenge than they have always been, he said.
"Keep in mind, we have dodged a number of tornadoes here in recent years," Jolliff said, explaining how lucky Tulsa was to have avoided the killer storm system that moved through the Oklahoma City area on May 3, 1999, before moving up the Turner Turnpike. A tornado that touched down on the west side of the city that night damaged 100 homes, a church, a library and a fire station before dissipating, providing a frightening glimpse of what might have been, he said.
"I think people forget how close we came that night," Jolliff said. "If that storm hadn't collapsed right before it crossed the Arkansas River, it would have done significant damage here."
Lovell said it would be a mistake to count out the impact an earthquake could have locally, as well, though he said that's more of an issue in other parts of the state than here. Still, he noted the various tremors that have been felt in the Tulsa area in recent months.
"Prior to a year ago, nobody had really noticed any earthquakes here," he said.
It's far more likely that a major earthquake occurring along the New Madrid fault line straddling the Mississippi River would have a substantial secondary impact on Tulsa, according to Lovell.
"It's due to go again at some point," he said. "When that does happen, we anticipate people evacuating that area and coming in this direction."
Keeping the Doors Open
Helping the community recover from such a catastrophic event is a major but often overlooked aspect of the local emergency response system. For example, Lovell said, even if a business has created a plan providing for the safety of its employees in such a situation, few of them have thought about how they'll handle an interruption in their ability to operate.
That's where his organization's Disaster Resistant Business Council comes in. The council has partnered with the Tulsa Metro Chamber and Tulsa Area United Way to reach out to local businesses and nonprofit organizations, helping them understand the importance of having a plan for how they'll survive if circumstances force them to close their doors for a prolonged period of time.
David Hall, a local State Farm Insurance executive who serves as chairman of the council, said the group was started by a handful of volunteers in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing collapse of the New Orleans business community.
"We thought, 'Here we sit at the crossroads of Tornado Alley and huge wind and hail storms. Are we any better prepared to handle that?'" he said. "The collective answer was, 'I don't know.'"
Hall's group started from scratch, learning as it grew, he said. The first year, it sponsored a symposium called "A Day Without Business."
"We were impressed with the community reaction to that," he said. "We would have felt lucky if 75 people showed up for it, and we ended up with 150."
The second year, he said, Tulsa Partners worked closely with Save the Children -- a Connecticut-based independent organization that works to create lasting change in the lives of children around the world -- on a community-wide initiative to ensure that children's needs were a priority in local emergency planning and response efforts. Hall said his council focused on creating a business continuation plan for day-care centers in the aftermath of a disaster.
"Out of Katrina came the realization that if you can't get your day-care community back up, you can't get your business community back up," he said.
In conjunction with the Tulsa Metro Chamber and the United Way, the council has held two sets of classes that teach business owners and managers how to survive in the face of a catastrophe. Hall said 60 percent of businesses that are closed for three months or more in the wake of a disaster don't reopen.
Hall likens the need for developing a business continuation plan to the need to carry insurance.
"I know it's kind of funny to make that comparison because that's the business I'm in," he said, though he makes no apologies for being such a firm advocate of the council's goals. "You have to get people to understand this could happen, and it's a big deal. We're as much about awareness as we are about training as we are about education."
It's All About You
Another often-overlooked aspect of disaster preparation and planning, officials say, is individual responsibility.
"People have to take personal accountability for their own safety and preparations," Jolliff said. "That means having a family emergency plan and disaster kit."
A variety of websites -- ready.gov, fema.gov, redcross.org -- offer great advice on how to build such a plan or put together a kit, he said. Jolliff reaches back only a few months for a good example of how important personal preparation is during an emergency.
"We found during the snowstorm last winter that the people who had listened to the weather and who had groceries on hand fared just fine," he said. "The people who were prepared had no problems. The people who weren't prepared had no food and hadn't stocked up on their prescriptions."
Lovell said it is very important for family members to have a plan for reuniting in the event of a catastrophe while they are scattered at work or school. Often, he said, that includes having a common point of contact, most likely a relative, in a far-away city that would be unaffected by the disaster. He also strongly advocates the construction of a safe room in every home.
It's just as important to avoid the temptation to throw up your hands and simply despair when considering how to handle a large-scale disaster, he said.
"One of the problems with that is, businesses or individuals will say, 'There's really nothing I can do about that,' " Lovell said. "But there are always things businesses and people can do to make structures more secure or places you can go to be at less risk."
Jolliff emphasized the need for families, businesses and emergency response organizations alike to periodically examine their disaster preparations.
"Each of those plans has to be a living document," he said. "If you put it on a shelf and don't update it, it's not going to work on game day."
Flanagan said some of the disaster-preparation work that's been done in Tulsa recently is encouraging, citing a hazard mitigation plan put together by Tulsa Public Schools and a plan for protecting the community's arts, cultural and historic treasures in the event of a natural disaster.
On the whole, however, he worries that Tulsans are woefully unprepared for what the rest of the 21st century might bring.
"People don't take hazards seriously until they hit them, and then it's too late," he said.
He noted that Oklahoma had 21 federally declared disasters last year, which set a national record. When he thinks about the frequency of those kinds of events and casts them against Tulsa's history of flood problems, he shakes his head and frets when he hears talk of the city promoting development on the banks of the Arkansas River.
"The closer you get to the river, the more dangerous it gets," he said, expressing reservations about the wisdom of taking public lands and make them available for commercial use. "That's risky behavior, and we ought to give it serious thought before we do it."
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