Oklahoma's positive image of having a strong economy and being a good state for businesses to locate and people to live won't be darkened despite two horrific tornadoes that struck the state days apart, Gov. Mary Fallin says.
Gripping scenes were on television, the Internet and in newspapers for days after deadly tornadoes ripped through the state last month.
“Even though we went through a terrible time and had a really unfortunate set of circumstances happen in our state, the strength of our state showed through very well,” Fallin said.
How state, local officials and residents responded to those tornadoes became the main — and lasting — story, the governor said.
“We had all hands on deck,” Fallin said. “When you have that much national and international media in our state, you worry about what is the image your state is going to have.
“We're going to have an image of, like I think we earned and we accomplished, that we're a strong people. We're resilient. We're compassionate.”
Fallin gave about 40 interviews with reporters from across the country. Her message was EF5 tornadoes are rare and Oklahoma's economy is strong.
“We're becoming a standard-bearer for economic growth with solid revenue collections and an enviable unemployment rate, now 4.9 percent, compared to a national jobless rate of 7.6 percent,” she said. “Oklahoma is very much open for business, and business is good.”
Fallin said she has received letters from people around the world saying they were impressed with how Oklahomans responded to the storms.
Fallin said Commerce Secretary Dave Lopez told her his staff had been contacted by about 100 national business site locators to express their sympathy, but also to let them know that Oklahoma has not been taken off any business prospect's list, despite the tornadoes.
She said that they admired how the people responded, saying that's the type of employees that companies would like to have working for them.
“From a business recruiting prospect and economic standpoint, there may be some people that may be concerned about Oklahoma, but … our tremendous response in taking care of our people earned our state a great deal of respect and gratitude for how hard our people worked to help each other,” Fallin said.
Fallin was lieutenant governor and watched how then-Gov. Frank Keating responded to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Keating gained high marks across the country after the bombing; New Jersey's Seton Hall University presented Keating with an honorary doctor of humanitarian service degree for his leadership and humanitarian response to the April 19 bombing.
Fallin, also as lieutenant governor, saw disorganization after a tragedy when she went to New Orleans in 2005 shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana.
Fallin followed Keating's approach, communicating with members of her Cabinet, working with officials in the state's emergency operations center and going to the scenes of devastation.
She was looking at the damage from the May 19 tornadoes the next day in the Shawnee area and Carney when she and Emergency Management Department Director Albert Ashwood rushed back to the Capitol because a strong tornado system was developing in the Oklahoma City area.
She went out to Moore hours after the tornado struck May 20, and went back several times in the next week, talking with survivors and first responders and going on tours with Oklahoma's congressional delegation, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and President Barack Obama.
“I appreciated the fact that he would take time to come to Oklahoma,” Fallin said. “It's the right thing to do for him and it would not have looked right if he hadn't come to Oklahoma.
“And certainly it's my job as governor during a time of tragedy to be here and to show him the needs of our state and what we need as far as federal response for Oklahoma. We disagree on a lot of policy issues, but we both understand we have a job to do.”
After the May 31 tornado struck the El Reno area, Fallin went June 2 to look at the damage there as well as talk with survivors and public safety officials.
“It was surreal that we could experience a second major round of storms so close to the Moore tornado,” she said. “But once again, we just picked right back up and did what we needed to do.”
Amy Sparks, a Democrat, said she was impressed that the Republican governor didn't come across as a typical politician.
“Regardless of our political differences, I have immense respect for the way in which she carried herself and to do so in such a seemingly natural way,” said Sparks, of Oklahoma City. “No doubt, she helped ease the challenging circumstances for the victims at a crucial moment in time.”
Greg Kennedy, of Norman, said the governor came across well, exhibiting professionalism.
“I also thought she appeared very sympathetic regarding the loss of life and property and did so without being irresponsible or sounding like she'd written a speech for it,” he wrote. “In other words, she was genuine.”