8 lessons learned from a real emergency disaster
Emergencies are never planned. Disaster can strike when you least expect it. So having plans and being prepared for these contingencies could save your life! Here are 8 lessons to take from a real life disaster.
May 20th, 2013 started out just like any other day. I went to work and had a rather uneventful day. I got home around 2:30 in the afternoon, and turned on the TV to see the local weather man warning people of a “Tornado Watch” issued for my area. The maps on TV showed an approaching storm cell, and it looked ominous.
The “Tornado Watch” went to a “Tornado Warning” in about 15 minutes, and by a little after 3pm, the city of Moore, Oklahoma had been hit, and hit HARD. In the end, 24 people lost their lives, and over 350 had been injured. The Governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, was quick to call it a disaster area. In the end, the damage from that tornado was estimated to be over $2 BILLION.
By 3:30pm, my police chief called me and asked if I could go to Moore and assist. Mary Fallin was asking for all available emergency personnel to come to the affected area. So back on goes the uniform and gear, and off I went.
Now I don’t live that far from Moore, but it took me much longer than usual to get there. The interstates were packed with vehicles trying to get TO the area. Even with lights and sirens, a few times I found myself driving on not just the shoulder of the highway, but on the outlying fields themselves to get around traffic that had come to a stand-still.
I know the back roads in that area well, but I did not take them. I had no way of knowing how many of them would be impassable due to the tornado. And I knew that I-35, the main US highway that runs right through the middle of Moore had not been damaged. (Although parts of it had been shut down due to debris on the highways.)
Eventually I made it, and was given directions to the Emergency Command Center. It was in the heart of the affected area; a Home Depot parking lot. There were a row of businesses right there that were relatively untouched, and they had vast parking areas. Plenty of room to set up operations and the needed equipment.
On a side note: The north side of that street, on the other hand, had been wiped out. It reminded me of pictures of the aftermath of WWII. Buildings were gone or gutted. In route to the area, I drove past what remained of the local hospital. My first thought when I saw what was left of it was that the death toll there would be catastrophic. Yet somehow, those in the hospital had been evacuated in the nick of time.
Lesson #1 – Have emergency routes and back up routes (with maps) established ahead of time
Like I said, I knew the back roads in that area as it wasn’t far from where I grew up. But I had no idea what sort of condition those roads were in. And were it not for the fact that I was in an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens, I could have been sitting on the interstate for hours.
I knew where the tornado had first started its destructive path, and I knew the direction it headed. So had I been trying to leave the area as opposed to driving right to it, I knew the “back roads” I could have taken to leave.
When I arrived, there were hundreds of police officers already on scene. City, county, state, and even federal officers were there ready to help. We were broken down into groups of 4-5, and each group assigned areas to watch.
My group’s area was a major intersection 3 miles down the road, Santa Fe and 19th street. Right in the middle of the tornado’s path. Our orders were simple; until the danger assessment could be completed (downed power lines, gas mains, etc) no one was allowed into the affected area. NO ONE! (This was quickly amended to utility personnel IN UNIFORM with picture ID.)
We were told that the city of Moore and the county simply did not have adequate radios to hand out to out-of-town officers. But we were given the frequency to tune our 800 band radios for emergency communication. Problem was, I did not have an 800 band radio.
At the time, I was a Lieutenant for a small department. We had to turn in our handheld radios at the end of each shift as we did not have enough to go around. So I did not have my department issued radio, which was programmed with the emergency management channel. (Three months later I was hired by a much LARGER department who issued me, among other things, my own hand held programmable radio and charger which I was instructed to take home.)
In addition, the radio in my patrol car was a low band frequency programmed to the county I worked in, not to this area. Fortunately, one of the officers in our group was a state trooper who had the emergency channel programmed to the radio in his car. So we were able to communicate with Command and Control.
During this time, I noticed that I could get absolutely ZERO cell reception on my phone. NONE! The towers in the area were obviously damaged or flooded with traffic. So I could get nothing in or out. No calls, no text, no internet.
About two to three hours later, my phone suddenly went crazy, and I received 7 or 8 text messages all at once. People were texting me to see if I was alright. I tried to send a text in reply, but it took 4 or 5 minutes to send. I decided to send only two text messages. One to my mother letting her know I was fine and to let everyone else know. The second I sent to my chief saying it was going to be a LONG NIGHT!
As the afternoon turned to evening, and evening to night, cell service was still affected. It got easier to send and receive text messages, SMS only. But calls and internet were still down. I tried to make a call around midnight, and got about 30 seconds of conversion before I lost service. It wasn’t until I went home the next morning that my reception returned to normal.
Lesson #2 – Have emergency plans in place for communication.
Knowledge is power, and in an emergency setting, the only way you will get knowledge is through communication with others. You can’t always count on cell phones. So having a person outside the affected area to direct all communication can certainly come in handy.
Having emergency (and portable) radios (even AM/FM radios with NOAA weather) to gather news and information will make a world of difference in an emergency situation. Make sure you have a way to keep power to your communication devices, i.e. keep them charged.
I was able to keep my cell phone charged in my car. But there was an officer in our group who didn’t have a charger. His phone died within an hour of arriving. Before the night was through, I was sending texts to his wife letting her know he was ok.
Right before his phone died, this officer wrote his wife’s number on a piece of paper. That evening, I was able to text her. But he didn’t remember anyone’s number. He was used to dialing their name. Had he not written down her number, he would have had ZERO communication with her.
Lesson #3 – Know your emergency contact’s number by heart
It is easy to get complacent. Cell phones and the digital means of communication make it easy to forget important contact information. But what happens if you no longer have access to those?
I have three different family member’s number memorized, (all live in different areas) as well as my police dispatch number. Should my phone become lost or disabled, I would at least be able to contact those numbers in an emergency. (Assuming I could find another phone.)
After about 2 hours on scene, I asked the other officers if they were thirsty. I had a small ice chest in my car with 3 or 4 bottles of water. I passed all of them out. So I decided to drink my water a little bit more slowly.
We were in luck, because an hour later a man on a 4 wheeler came by with a huge ice chest full of bottled water. We took some. After that, someone came by almost every hour with ice chests full of bottled water. I was happy about that because the water I had brought was long gone.
By about 9pm, my stomach was reminding me that I had a light lunch and it was well past dinner time. The other officers were in the same boat. Obviously there were no open restaurants or stores for several miles. The guys with the ice chests only had water. So we tightened our belts and made do.
About 0130 in the morning, a state trooper in a large SUV pulled up and brought us two aluminum pans with BBQ ribs and fried chicken. It was cold, but we didn’t care. That was some of the best ribs I have ever had. Hunger is indeed the best spice!
Lesson #4 – Have some extra food and water with you
I kept a small ice chest with bottled water before this. But that night I learned that it helps to have something to give you energy and stop the hunger pains. I now keep some Clif bars in that ice chest as well. (Clif bars have a huge variety of flavors, are non GMO, have around 230 calories per bar, and have a shelf life of about 9 months to a year.) I also learned that the food and water I have could go a lot quicker than what I thought.
I was told that the chicken and ribs were donated by a locally owned restaurant. The owner, his wife, and their kids immediately began cooking mass quantities of food right after the tornado hit. They took the food and gave to the Command Center for the emergency workers. The restaurant employees worked round the clock, not just that night but well into the next day keeping hot, fresh food coming.
Other stores and restaurants soon followed, and by the next morning the Command Center could have fed ALL of the emergency workers AND their families for days.
I wish I knew who the restaurant was. Unfortunately the trooper didn’t know when I asked. But it restored, just a little, my belief in the good of humanity.
On the flip side, about 90 minutes after I was in my area, an older gentleman walked up to me. I would have guessed he was in his 50s or early 60s. He was demanding to know where his mother was. She obviously was an elderly woman, and he was frightened for her. He was VERY agitated, and was yelling and screaming.
Clearly, I had no idea who he was, who his mother was, or where she might be located. Moore, Oklahoma is a city of about 55,000 people; thousands of whom had suddenly been displaced, or worse. I also knew at that time that the majority of the rescue efforts were being directed to the Plaza Towers Elementary school which had suffered a direct hit. (Sadly, 7 children would be killed there.)
I knew that trying to find someone to help him find his mother would be impossible. The area HAD to be given the “All Clear” by the utility companies before rescue workers could proceed.
I began to ask the man questions in an attempt to do what I could. The man could not answer some of my simple questions, only that his mother was not home but was supposed to be shopping somewhere in this area.
Once the man realized I would not let him go into the affected area, he began yelling and cursing at me. I tried to remain sympathetic, but after a minute or two of being screamed at, my patience was wearing thin. I even tried to tell him he where the Command Center was, but he wouldn’t listen. His insults and profanity turned truly vulgar; almost aggressive. He stated he was going into the affected area and to hell with me.
At this point he was causing a problem. I told the man that if he did not leave the area, he was going to jail for disturbing the peace. Fortunately, the man left.
Lesson #5 – We don’t know how people around us will react to an emergency situation
Some people make the best of the situation, and will help those around them. Others will simply make the situation worse and could endanger others.
I did not take the man’s actions personally. I know he was scared for his elderly mother. I could see the fear and panic in his eyes. Unfortunately, fear leads people to make rash and sometimes unsafe decisions.
I could not allow him into the area to search by himself. Not only would he be putting himself in danger, but he could be risking the lives of others who might still be trapped. Many of the buildings were structurally unsound and in danger of collapse. His poking around could cause even more damage.
I tried to get the man to go to the Command Center where he could file a report on his mother. (That’s where we were directed to send people looking for loved ones.) For all I know, his mother could have been directed to go there herself.
For whatever reason, this man refused to do it even though it was the logical thing to do.
I’d like to believe in normal circumstances, this man would have behaved like a rational human being. But fear was causing him to behave aggressively and irrationally. I believe the only reason the man did not escalate the situation further is because there were 4 other cops standing beside me.
Lesson #6 – Emergency workers may not have all the answers or may not be able to help you right away
This man saw my badge and gun. In his mind, I represented authority, and I was there to help him. Unfortunately there was little I could do to. Given the scale of this disaster, there was little that anyone could do right then.
Time and again I am called to the scene of a crime without a clear understanding of what is really going on. We arrive having only the information that dispatch has given us, and many times that is incomplete or shaky at best. Now multiple that by 10 on the scene of a large-scale emergency.
Also keep in mind that YOU may not have all of the facts or “behind the scenes” knowledge of what all is going on. What you think is happening may instead be something different, or it may be much worse than you realize. This also can apply to emergency workers.
The man was not focused on the fact that there were downed, live power lines all over that area. He probably didn’t realize that there were open, leaking gas lines. Instead, he was focused solely on his mother. Tunnel vision if you will. He could have made the situation a lot worse and endangered others around him.
After a few hours, people began returning to the area to try to see what was left of their homes. But we could not let them into the area until the all clear was given. Once we explained the downed power lines and leaking gas, most people were very understanding.
Once the utility companies said it was safe, we were instructed to allow people to go to their homes, as long as they could prove that they had a residence in the area. We were also told that anyone leaving the area with anything of value needed to be stopped and checked for proof of residence.
The reasoning was simple; two men had already been detained and later arrested for attempting to loot. It is sad that there are those out there who will use an opportunity like this to steal. (The fact that it was now dark and there were no street lights did not help matters either.) In the end, almost 20 people were arrested for looting…several of them coming in from out of state. It made my blood boil thinking that there are those who will only prey on the victims. But that, unfortunately, is the world we live in.
I was surprised by the number of people who had a state ID, but their address was not current. I told them that a utility bill with their name and current address on it would work, but some people did not have that either.
Many people who could not prove their residence and were initially turned away understood. But some did not and quickly became angry.
Lesson #7 – Keep current documentation on you at all times
In my state, when you move it is YOUR responsibility to notify the Dept. Of Public Safety when you change addresses. Under state law, if the Dept. Of Public Safety needs to notify you of something, they mail it to the address listed on your driver’s license and consider you served.
So not only do you need to have important documents on you, but making sure they are current and up to date is crucial.
As darkness fell, I noticed that as many of the people returned home, they were tired and worn down. With the roads completely shut down, many had walked for miles to get home. The women in heels and the men in formal shoes were paying the price. Or rather, their feet were.
Many people wanted to know where they could stay. I told them where the Command Center was, and that hotels vouchers were being given out. In addition, there was transportation from the Command Center to these hotels, YMCAs, churches, etc.
The joy these people felt was VERY short-lived when I pointed the way to the Command Center and said, “It’s about 3 miles that way. We don’t have transportation to it so unfortunately you will have to walk.”
A few of the women had removed their heels and were walking barefoot. I was shocked, and even mentioned to them the danger from the glass and debris all over the road ways and sidewalks. Much of it could not be seen because it was dark. Walking barefoot through that was insane!
(The intersections were lit with mobile lighting towers running on generators, but those lights really only covered the intersections. About 50 feet beyond the intersections were dark because none of the street lights worked.)
Lesson #8 – Sturdy, comfortable shoes and a working flashlight are must haves
Any prepper worth his salt knows this. But do they really follow it? And if they do, are these items easily accessible?
I actually had a woman in high heels tell me that she kept walking shoes in her car. Unfortunately, a huge telephone pole had smashed her car and was now laying on top of it. She couldn’t get to her shoes. Other people couldn’t get to their cars due to debris.
I keep my Go bag in my truck. Would I always be able to get to it? It is certainly something I think about.
Do you have a flashlight handy at all times? Is it charged and ready to go? No power meant no light, and these people were walking miles in the darkness. Even a cheap flashlight would have been better than nothing.
Eventually night turned to day light, and I went home for a few hours of sleep. As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. I was fortunate that most of these lessons I already knew, but had not necessarily experienced them first hand. At least not on such a huge scale.
Should a major disaster ever strike again, I feel that I will be better prepared to handle. Will you?
Stay safe out there!
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