POSTED ON MAY 29, 2013:
Prepared to Help
OU-Tulsa's disaster medicine aided Moore efforts
Bill Justice got the word and acted quickly.
"I was actually speaking at a conference in Dallas when I got the alert. 'Hey, it is hitting and it is going to be big.' I immediately headed back over here," said Justice, assistant director for prehospital and disaster medicine in the University of Oklahoma's Department of Emergency Medicine.
On Monday, May 20, fellow faculty from Tulsa raced toward Moore, ready to do what they could to help those affected by the devastating tornado. Authorities have announced that 24 people were killed in the storm, also stating that more than a thousand homes were damaged or destroyed by the force of the storm.
Justice, normally based in Oklahoma City, said the OU-Tulsa contingent first worked with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to establish a "rehab" area to primarily help first-responders with their medical needs.
"It was more of a clinic in the field, if you will," Justice said, describing a Home Depot that proved to be the appropriate site for command headquarters.
Preparedness involves arriving at the scene with everything needed for a 72-hour stay. The set-up at Moore included having Western Shelter tents, covered areas large enough to "set up a surgery suite if we needed to," Justice said.
He said he arrived in Moore at about 5:30pm, after a colleague, Dr. Stephen Thomas, chairman for the department, had already arrived. Also traveling to Moore from Tulsa was Dr. Jeff Goodloe, director of the Oklahoma Center for Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, Justice said.
Justice went to the main command site first.
But operations seemed under control, so he quickly began working with the U.S. Marshals Service, setting out around 7:15pm as part of a small team to search for any survivors buried beneath rubble.
Security was important at the scene, Justice said. "I'm cautious about saying 'looting.' They had a few questionable folks that were down there," he said. But more than that, a security perimeter was just needed to keep everyone except for searchers away from the scene, Justice said.
William A. Justice
COURTESY OF OUDEM
"You're looking at just complete devastation. It's almost like you're watching a movie," said Justice. He's far from inexperienced, having responded to the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1999 Moore tornado.
The job at hand in such a circumstance requires a coordinated effort, he explained.
"You're doing this systematic approach to this. You're thinking, 'Where could people be if they were here?'" Justice said. It's also important to mark an area after searching and keep in contact with other teams to go where needed.
At one point -- Justice guessed it might have been around midnight -- "the report came through, at least the Marshals' command post, they had heard banging," Justice said. "They felt they had somebody in one of those safe houses."
But mounds of debris were piled atop where the sound might be coming from. The team Justice was on, as well as others, went to the site to move the rubble.
"It may have been 30-40 folks, literally I watched with my eyes, move a complete house of debris from one location to another, thinking there were people there," Justice said.
Ultimately, there proved to be no one beneath the debris. But searchers throughout remained on the lookout for similar signs of life.
"You'll hear the command, 'Quiet!'" Justice said. "So everyone will stop where they are and they'll listen for a bit." He added that news helicopters were asked to avoid flying overhead in another effort to make sure no one's cries for help would be overlooked.
Justice described how everyone devoted themselves to the physical task of sifting through the broken bits of buildings -- regardless of specialization or gender.
"It didn't matter. You were digging," Justice said.
News reports dismissing the possibility of finding survivors caused a mild furor among searchers during those early morning hours.
"Somebody saw it at a command post," Justice said. Among searchers, "it had almost kind of ramped them up; you know, 'We're going to prove them wrong,'" Justice said. "The whole process is we are always looking for survivors, but at the same time, we want to be responsible to the family members that may have lost somebody."
Ultimately, Justice did not uncover anyone during the long hours of searching. His shift extended until about 2pm Tuesday afternoon.
"I can tell you, most of the folks down there were mostly running on adrenaline," Justice said, describing his own condition at the end of the initial marathon shift as "absolutely exhausted."
But he said that's why it's important to plan ahead to have treatment procedures in place for first responders. Gloves, safety glasses and helmets aren't enough to prevent all injuries.
Justice said he treated some for eye problems related to irritants in the air. Others needed tetanus shots after accidentally stepping on nails.
Of course, among the residents, there were far worse injuries.
"We did see some pretty significantly injured with bleeding," Justice said.
He noted that other Tulsans also responded to the scene, including the Urban Search and Rescue team that has members based in Tulsa. In a news statement, the city noted that two members of the Tulsa Fire Department went to the scene on May 20, while 29 went the next day. Another eight members of the department from its Critical Emergency Response Team also went to help first responders "cope with the stress that they may experience operating at an incident of this magnitude," according to the city's statement.
The Tulsa Police Department's Disaster Area Response Team also traveled to Moore on May 21, and personnel from the Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency also were at the command post on that day.
"Tulsa can be proud. They had a huge presence," Justice said.
Anyone interested in assisting effort in Moore may make a cash donation to the American Red Cross may call 1-800-RED CROSS or, to make a $10 donation, text REDCROSS to 90999. The Tulsa Community Foundation has set up a fund to assist tornado victims in Moore and Shawnee. Information about donating can be found at tulsacf.org.
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