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Preparing for Disaster Proves Harder Than Expected

Filed by Michael Cross in Feature, Local News, News.
November 1, 2013

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Having a plan and being flexible are essential for any group that deals with disaster response.

When the tornadoes struck in May, local officials had to navigate away from some of their pre-planned blueprints to accommodate for unknowns.

The Oklahoma Tornado Project’s Kate Carlton looks at what the tornados taught them about how to balance anticipating storms with adjusting during disasters.

Kristy Yager is the Public Information Officer for Oklahoma City.

She’s used to creating game plans for emergencies.

So when May 20th came, she made her way to a bunker with emergency managers, police and a handful of city officials.

She’d prepared for the crisis as best she could, but found herself overwhelmed trying to handle the influx of media requests.

“The minute that tornado hit the ground, I started getting national phone calls from everyone, from Fox, from CNN, from ABC, NBC, CBS, and I was having a very hard time managing the calls.”

Yager says her team, along with the city manager, acted quickly.

They scheduled a press conference at Moore City Hall at 7pm, and began calling the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other relief organizations, inviting them to attend.

“That went ok. The problem was getting to Moore City Hall. It was just a devastated area and getting into it was very, very difficult. So most of the speakers weren’t able to get there by 7:00.”

Choosing an accessible location for press conferences is one of the things Yager says her team will consider more closely the next time a storm hits.

She spoke last week at a panel discussion on “Lessons Learned from the May Tornadoes,” organized by the group Women in Communication.

Looking back, Yager says things that wouldn’t normally slip your mind are easily lost in the hectic environment when disasters strike.

“Employee communication was a big thing that I forgot about in the first 48 hours of the May 20th tornado. I was so busy trying to figure out who, what, when where, how that the city employees wasn’t even a thought until someone asked about it. We had dozens, if not hundreds of employees that lost their homes. I needed to make sure that the city manager reached out to them and say, ’Hey, we care’.”

As much as Yager had planned for this storm, things still snuck up on her.

Having to change plans at the last minute is something many groups deal with when confronting disaster response.

“We have a disaster communication plan, but it’s not specific enough,” says Erin Engelke, VP of Communications and Public Relations for Feed the Children.

Even though her group frequently deals with the aftermath of all sorts of tragedies, she recognizes that tornadoes may call for different tactics than flooding or other disasters.

“For Feed the Children, we respond to disasters around the United States, but it’s gonna be a little bit different than when it happens right where your headquarters are located. “

She says that following the storm, one of the challenges was coordinating all the volunteers and donations that came pouring in from across the country.

Cynthia Reid with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber agrees that no amount of planning can prevent unforeseen problems from creeping up in the midst of a disaster.

“The reality is, everyone’s different. You can plan all day long, and you’re gonna get a curveball, and you just have to have enough smart people in the room that can think through it.”

Creating a game plan in advance is the easy part.

But, says Oklahoma City’s Kristy Yager, since storms of the May 20th magnitude aren’t all that common, the challenge is to maintain a sense of urgency during the years without disasters.

Funding for the Oklahoma Tornado Project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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