With thousands of destroyed houses, 46 deaths and damage estimates topping the $5 billion mark, victims of Oklahoma’s two EF-5 tornadoes are asking the same question: What have we learned?
The answers are almost as varied as those asking the question.
For even as residents clear out the last of the debris from the storms and begin the process of rebuilding their lives, the question continues to be asked.
Some officials say the May storms offered the entire state an opportunity to learn how to better protect itself.
“Both May storms taught us a great deal,” said state Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat from the small town of Rush Springs. “But one of the biggest lessons we learned was that most of our schools are not prepared to withstand a significant tornado.”
And though experts say the most EF-5s that hit the central part of the state are rare, Oklahoma has seen at least three storms of that magnitude since 1999.
For Dorman, that’s evidence enough that in Oklahoma bigger disasters are becoming the norm.
“They say that size of storms are rare, but it doesn’t seem like it here,” Dorman said. “Unfortunately, we see many disasters like those in May and its obvious that in ways we are not prepared for them.”
The best example, Dorman said, was storm shelters – or safe areas – in public schools.
“After the May 3, 1999 tornado and the other storms that have hit the state there wasn’t much of a call to add tornado shelters,” he said. “Sadly, it took the death of public school children to get the public’s attention. Now, we’re seeing a huge push to fund the construction of safe rooms and safe areas in schools.”
Following the May 21 tornadoes, Dorman filed legislation during the last days of the Oklahoma legislative session to earmark $500 million in state bond funds for the construction of storm shelters in public schools.
And though Dorman’s effort fell flat, the idea went national. Not long after the second tornado hit, the state’s public emergency management director, Albert Ashwood, said schools should have some type of safe room.
Today, a public-private partnership is working to raise funds to pay for construction of safe rooms across the state. And in Moore, Robert Romines, the superintendent of Moore schools, said the district would add safe rooms to at least four new elementary schools that were in planning and design stages.
Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis – who has served as mayor through all three of the city’s EF-5 tornado disasters – said city officials had partnered with representatives of the home building industry, the business community, insurance officials and private citizens to develop new ways to keep the residents of the central Oklahoma city safe.
Those ideas, he said, were sparked by lessons learned from previous disasters.
“We have a great community,” Lewis said. “It’s terrific. But, honestly, I’m tired of looking for bodies. We have to take this opportunity to make our community safer. These storms and their destruction are a lesson for all of us.”
Like Dorman and others, Lewis wants safe rooms in public schools. In addition, the mayor has called for changes in building codes to require storm shelters or safe areas in private homes and multi-family dwellings.
And though Lewis’ first attempt at a change in building codes met with resistance, he said Moore was looking to Joplin, Mo., as an example of how a city developed new policies to make its residents safer.
“We’re taking a lesson from all this,” he said. “We’re looking at other examples to see what can and should be done.”
Dorman agreed. He said the storms were part of “a very painful lesson” learned by all Oklahomans.
“The problem we have in Oklahoma is that we’re pretty tough,” he said. “And we have this attitude that it will never happen to us. I believe that’s why so many Oklahomans don’t have shelters or insurance. They don’t believe anything will happen to them.”
Oklahoma’s top disaster official agreed. And even though state government and cities take some steps to protect residents, Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said, the biggest effort must come from the residents, themselves.
“There are many things we can learn from every disaster,” Ashwood said. “And there are many things we can take care of at a public level. But it’s up to the individual homeowners to take protection for themselves and their families.”
And in Oklahoma, a state with an ancient history of natural disasters, Ashwood said people tend forget the problem after a couple of months.
“Many people stand outside and watch them,” he said. “But I, myself, have never seen one. When they sound the sirens I’m in a shelter. It’s not time to go outside.”
Ashwood said the state has also learned how to speed up the time it takes to remove debris following a storm. He said his agency works with others to continue to refine way to make clean up and recovery as swift as possible.
“There are so many elements. So many things that people don’t consider such as mental health, individual health, the effects the storms have on the economy,” he said. “All of these things have to be examined. We’re going to have to address them and see what improvements we can make.”