Oklahoma's Medical Emergency Response Center played a key role in timely tornado recovery

Responsibilities included helping organize the evacuation of Moore Medical Center and restoring power to the Draper Water Treatment Plant.
BY KYLE HINCHEY khinchey@opubco.com Modified: July 6, 2013 at 9:00 pm •  Published: July 5, 2013
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Michael Murphy is an unsung hero.

As director of the Metropolitan Medical Response System and head of the Medical Emergency Response Center, Murphy plays a vital role in disaster recovery.

State agencies and first-responder organizations help out on the field, but the response center ensures everything behind the scenes is running smoothly, such as hospital evacuations and resource allocation.

“That's the whole beauty of the MERC,” Murphy said. “It's a one-stop shop.”

The agency's first big assignment was the May 3, 1999, tornado that killed 36 people in the Oklahoma City metro area. Since then, it has provided its services during the many disasters that have hit the state.

Murphy worked to get power restored to the Flora Deen Martin Center, a nursing home at 14901 N Pennsylvania Ave., when severe storms struck Oklahoma City on May 18. The next day, when tornadoes swept through central Oklahoma, he was in Shawnee, helping prevent the medical system from overloading.

Once the situation calmed that night, Murphy was finally able to get some rest. He arrived at work on the morning of May 20 thinking the worst was over.

But it wasn't.

Response

As the EF5 tornado bore down on Moore and surrounding areas, the Medical Emergency Response Center kicked into overdrive. The number of emergencies requiring immediate attention was overwhelming, Murphy said. Entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble. In the end, 24 people were killed, and more than 300 were injured.

“The first thing we had to deal with was Moore Hospital, getting that evacuated, and then we just carried on,” he said.

Moore Medical Center, 700 S Telephone Road, housed about 400 patients, employees and city residents taking shelter at the time it was hit. Shane Cohea, Moore Medical Center's emergency preparedness director, said the hospital was a total loss.

Murphy's organization orchestrated the evacuation, supplying Emergency Medical Services with enough ambulances to relocate patients to other hospitals. Those inside the building were ushered across the street to the damaged Warren Theater, where medical services were standing by.

The evacuation took between 20 and 30 minutes. Against all odds, everyone in the hospital survived, Cohea said, and there were no serious injuries.

“It was a blessing,” he said. “Honestly, that's the only thing I could think of to describe it.”

Cohea said the center's quick response time made for the smooth evacuation.

“As soon as we got hit, MERC was calling in to confirm if we had a direct strike and that they were sending resources down to help us,” he said. “We still didn't have 100 percent confirmation that we were destroyed, and they were already calling us.”

May 21, the response center shifted its attention to the water crisis. Oklahoma City's Draper Water Treatment Plant lost power in the May 20 storms, causing many hospitals to lose water until the next afternoon, Murphy said.

“A hospital's weakest link is water,” he said. “Lack of water cripples the medical system. When they go 24 hours without water, then you really have to start thinking about doing drastic things.

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