California and Texas.
Those are the only two states that have had more federal disaster declarations than Oklahoma since 1953, according to the state Emergency Management Department. Oklahoma has endured 94 federal disasters in that span, including 32 since 2007.
So why is the number 20 important?
Because on the north side of the state Capitol complex, there is 20 feet between the grassy surface above and the lowest point of the bunker below that serves as the state's Emergency Operations Center.
This is the control central for Oklahoma during many major disasters.
For example, if officials of a local community need assistance during a winter storm or after a tornado, they can contact the Emergency Operations Center.
“It's not the Emergency Management Operations Center; this is the entire state of Oklahoma,” said Albert Ashwood, director of the Emergency Management Department. “Basically, any resource needed to respond to a disaster, help recover from a disaster, can be reached through this office. It's like one-stop shopping.”
Cold War origins
The bunker was built in 1963. The Cold War creation was designed to withstand the shock of a 20-megaton blast as close as three miles away.
That's why state officials say the center was mounted on heavy springs to absorb the vibrations and why there are sliding blast doors weighing 18,000 pounds each on either end of the tunnel leading to the bunker.
When some states elected to go above ground with emergency operations in recent years, the Emergency Management Department chose to stay underground and renovate the existing 12,000-square-foot area, Ashwood said.
There are 14 outer-circle and eight inner-circle computer-equipped stations in the bullpen, sitting ready until local, state and national leaders converge to respond to the next disaster.
Department staff members are seated in the inner circle, and depending on the type of disaster, the outer circle includes the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, the Oklahoma National Guard, the state Health Department, the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department, the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and/or others agencies.
Having individuals from these agencies elbow-to-elbow during a disaster is “extremely important,” Ashwood said.
“Because what we do is not just look over and say, ‘Guard, do this' or ‘DPS, do that.' We say, ‘Here's the mission: How are we going to meet it?'” Ashwood said. “So it might be something like rescuing stranded motorists in an ice storm or snowstorm.
“Well, that's a multifunction between DPS, the military department and ODOT. All three of them got together and said, ‘How can we make this happen with the resources we have?' It has worked out great.”
Individuals in the bullpen at the bunker have four large, wall-mounted video screens before them, each able to take four separate feeds at once.
Outside the bullpen, the governor's conference room meets U.S. Homeland Security standards. The state Transportation Department has a room with access to video monitors of roadways. And a media room allows live news coverage.
Plus, another 18 to 20 temporary liaison stations can be set up.
Also outside the bunker is a full kitchen. There are not specific sleeping quarters, but sleeping areas can be created in the state Emergency Management Office area or down the hall. There also are showers in the bathrooms in case personnel need to work from the bunker for several days.
When to activate
Asked about when the Emergency Operations Center is activated, spokeswoman Keli Cain said, “We don't have specific criteria for the activation levels; it's determined by either the forecast risk or the amount of resources that are being requested or that we expect to be requested.”
“So for example, if we're hearing from both the National Weather Service and state Forestry Services that they are expecting a high risk of wildfire weather,” Cain said, “then we might go ahead and activate to a level 3, which is extended hours for key personnel. Then during that day if we start getting a lot of resource requests for helicopters or shelters to be set up for cooling stations, or other requests, then we would activate to a level 2 or level 1. A level 2 is extended hours seven days a week and a level 1 is 24 hours, seven days a week.
“And so it just depends on what the actual situation is.”
Cain said the most recent lengthy activation was after the severe storms that started on May 19.
They were activated for 10 days at that time, returned to normal staffing and then activated again May 31.
Other than that, the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, and the tornado outbreak of May 3, 1999, were two other especially long periods of activation.
“I am so appreciative of the exceptional efforts of my staff and our liaison officers,” Ashwood said. “It is not easy to leave your family during a storm to camp out in an operations center, but they've always answered the call and stayed on duty until the mission is complete.”