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OK was better prepared

Oklahoma City bore two tornadoes with few serious injuries or fatalities. How?

BY PJ HELLER | MOORE, Okla. | May 12, 2003


"Initial numbers in from emergency management indicate this is probably a highly insured disaster."

—LURA CAYTON


More storm shelters and "safe rooms," an improved warning system and a public that now takes tornado warnings more seriously are being credited by fire officials for a lack of serious injuries or any fatalities when a tornado tore through this community near Oklahoma City.

In contrast, a twister that ripped through the area on May 3, 1999 and caused massive devastation left 44 people dead.

Deputy Fire Chief Gary Bird said a number of factors contributed to the reduced toll in last week's storm, in which about 145 people were injured, none seriously.

"They've learned," he said of the public.

As part of that learning process, people have installed "safe rooms," storm shelters or storm cellars to protect them in the event of a tornado. The town also replaced its public warning siren system after the 1999 tornado.

"It's been replaced and updated with twice as many sirens and they overlap," Bird said. "People also pay attention to media now.

They listen to all the different newscasters and weather forecasters. When they say there's a tornado in the area and you need to seek shelter, people listen to them."

Bird's comments came as the fire station in Moore was being turned into a mini-warehouse, stocked with items including bottled water, diapers, work gloves. Much of the material has been donated by local companies, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's, Shell and Auto Zone.

One of the items in short supply was trash bags.

Two fire department brush trucks loaded with supplies drove up and down neighborhood streets handing out flashlights, work gloves and other items to residents.

"Anything we have we're willing to get out to them," Bird said. "If we don't have it, if you tell us what you need, we'll do our best to get it for you."

The department was also offering free tetanus shots for residents.

The fire station didn't come through last week's storm unscathed. The roof at Fire Station #2 was blown off, the huge front doors were destroyed and the glass in the back doors were broken, and a $500,000 firefighting vehicle "has all kinds of damage to it," Bird reported.

Bird, who vividly remembers the 1999 tornado that ripped apart this community, said the damage this time was significantly less.

"The biggest difference you'll see if you were here in '99 is that in '99 you would see slabs, the houses were gone," he recalled. "(Today) you see lots of houses damaged and destroyed but they're still standing. They may not be repairable, but the last time you just saw slabs of concrete."

Another factor is that most of the homeowners affected by the storm apparently have insurance, according to Lura Cayton of Church World Service.

"Initial numbers in from emergency management indicate this is probably a highly insured disaster," she said. "It may be underinsured, but there's going to be a pretty high insurance rate. There will be unmet needs but it may not be as high as you might expect in a disaster of this nature."

Because of disasters that have hit Oklahoma from the bombing of the federal building to the tornado in 1999 a resource coordinating committee which includes faith-based groups has been in place.

"Unless I discover that structure isn't going to work this time, we'll probably not form a separate interfaith," Cayton said. "We'll probably just try to make sure that all of the faith groups are participating."


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