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.
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.
“We had eight or nine more hospitals that almost needed evacuated.”
The Medical Emergency Response Center worked with city officials to create timelines and update hospitals as well as arrange water drops to keep medical facilities running, Murphy said.
Oklahoma Heart Hospital South, 5200 E Interstate 240 Service Road, was the closest hospital to the water plant. After hospital officials decided to relocate 15 patients whose treatments demanded higher amounts of water, Murphy assembled ambulances to move them to sister facilities.
Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. helped the Oklahoma City Department of Utilities restore power to the plant and succeeded around 1 p.m. May 21, he said. Crews then spent several hours purging the system and letting it refill with water.
“Once again, OG&E did what they do for us,” Murphy said. “People around here don't realize what kind of a power company we have when it comes to disaster response. I come from another part of the country where you'd be without power for three or four days and they'd just say, ‘We'll get to it.'”
May 22 focused on meeting with officials from the Oklahoma State and Cleveland County health departments and city EMS to plan where temporary health clinics should be situated. Mercy Health Care and Norman Regional Health System each set up two clinics.
The rest of the week consisted of monitoring the medical system and piecing it back together, Murphy said. He and his team also conducted preparations for President Barack Obama's visit to Moore on May 26.
After the presidential visit, the response center began its second phase — evaluation.
“The response piece of it is the short term and the quick one,” Murphy said. “After you get done with the response, what you have to do is — if you're a quality organization — you have to give yourself a very thorough critique of what went right and what went wrong.”
The process begins with gathering data and documenting what happened. Information is pulled from all aspects of the disaster, especially the Moore Medical Center evacuation, he said.
The objective is to compile an account of what happened — an unpleasant, time-consuming task — so that others may learn from it, Murphy said. It requires follow-up and follow-through, and gaps in the narrative are inevitable. But the results are worth it.
“There is an incredible amount of experience and new knowledge being held by those who had to manage such a huge and terrifying incident,” he said. “There are thousands of agencies across the country facing the same threat that want to gain from our experience. We have a moral and professional duty to share so they are better prepared to respond to the needs of their citizens.”
One way Murphy helps prepare others is by meeting with local hospital officials to discuss safety procedures. Since 1999, the group has met every month at the Integris Cancer Institute, 5911 W Memorial Road. After May, the meetings have concentrated on which procedures were effective and which could be improved.
“If you don't find something, then you're not looking hard enough,” Murphy said. “Because in every disaster, there's ways to improve.”