May 2013 got off to a cold start, with even as much as 3 inches of snow reported one day in far eastern Oklahoma.
However, by month’s end, tornadoes and other forms of severe weather, including flooding, became daily concerns.
During such times of disasters, the state Emergency Management Department activates the Emergency Management Operations Center. The most recent lengthy activation — 10 days — was after the severe storms that started on May 19, 2013.
Emergency Management Department Director Albert Ashwood was asked to look back on immediate, as well as ongoing, responses as his office works with officials of local communities affected by the severe storms last May.
Q: What is one specific thing you or your department learned from the severe weather — including the tornadoes and floods — of May 2013 that will help you as you serve the public during severe weather in 2014?
A: One learning experience that we thought was very successful following the May storms was a debris removal pilot program developed by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) that provided financial incentives for cities and counties for expedited debris removal and for having debris management plans. The program allowed an 85 percent reimbursement for all eligible costs for debris removed in the first 30 days, followed by 80 percent the next 60 days and finally the normal 75 percent after that. Since the state also was able to pay the normal share of 12.5 percent, it left a much smaller percentage for the local jurisdiction. This was a new program being implemented for the first time as a result of the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, so it was a new experience for everyone involved. OEM and FEMA worked closely with the local jurisdictions to help support them through this process. We hope this program becomes standard for future disasters and we are working with local cities and counties as they develop or update their debris management plans to be better prepared for such a program. The faster communities are able to clean up after a disaster, the faster families are able to begin the recovery process.
Q: Please talk about the magnitude of the storms that spanned not only the Oklahoma City metro area, but many areas of Oklahoma.
A: The May tornadoes, flooding, straight-line winds and severe storms were widespread and devastating to numerous communities. We are fortunate in Oklahoma to have amazing first responders across the state as well as dedicated emergency managers who worked very hard to get assistance to cities and counties through not only state and federal resources, but also through voluntary agencies such as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Baptist Disaster Relief and others.
Q: Did this more-on-than-off cycle of storms from May 19 to May 31 pose any unique challenges for your office? How did your office respond?
A: Unfortunately, in Oklahoma we can have disasters any time of year, so our staff is well practiced. Whether it’s wildfires, ice storms, the devastating tornadoes we saw in May or any other type of disaster requiring extended activation, our staff is prepared to work the extra days and hours as long as we need to in order to support the local cities and counties impacted.
Q: Is your office still responding to the storms of last May?
A: Yes, this disaster is still ongoing. OEM staff continues to work with FEMA as well as supporting the long-term recovery groups that are still very active in the impacted communities. Infraestructure projects and others can take months or even years to complete, so OEM continues to work with local governments as they work through those processes. Additionally, long-term recovery committees can stay active as long as they are still needed, so our staff will continue to provide any support we can.