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Oklahoma emergency management director looks back on planning, response to recent winter storm

Agencies and organizations across Oklahoma came together to provide help during recent winter storm. Each storm provides lessons, says Albert Ashwood, director of the state Emergency Management Department.
by Bryan Painter Published: February 5, 2011

At the state Emergency Operations Center, Albert Ashwood paces inside his office 25 feet below ground.

The center is in a bunker built in 1963 on the north side of the state Capitol complex.

It's about 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Ashwood, director of the state Emergency Management Department, has his cell phone pressed to his right ear.

His conversation centers on what is going on above ground.

Oklahoma is in the midst of a brutal winter storm with very low visibility and some of the most biting wind chill temperatures the state has experienced in years.

Agencies and organizations began preparing for this storm Jan. 27. The center was activated four days later, on Monday, as Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency.

Ashwood and many others lived for three days and two nights in the bunker, gathering and sharing information with the public, agencies, the media and each other.

Just outside his office is “the bullpen” with 14 outer-circle and eight inner-circle computer-equipped stations.

Personnel from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Oklahoma National Guard, state Health Department, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Department of Human Services and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission are among those gathered during this blizzard. The state Transportation Department also has a room in the bunker.

After efforts turned to recovery, Ashwood took a few minutes to reflect on this storm.

Q: What was your toughest call on this storm?

A: I think the toughest call was making the Emergency Alert System activation. Not because it wasn't the right thing to do, but because it was our first time to do it. We knew there were hundreds of immobile vehicles around the state, but we were unsure how many were abandoned and how many contained stranded motorists. I was concerned the EAS message would lead to a huge number of abandoned car reports and tie up local 911 centers.

(Background: An emergency alert message was sent out on NOAA Weather Radio, online, through commercial radio and other media Tuesday night to anyone who was stranded or knew of someone stranded to call certain emergency numbers for assistance. Almost immediately, the phone began to ring in the state Emergency Operations Center with calls regarding stranded motorists.)

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