Oklahoma City's practiced response to second crisis

So far, Oklahoma City is proving itself one of America's most adept communities at handling crises. Perhaps that's because it has had so much experience - from Dust Bowl droughts to the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building.

The metropolitan area's disaster experts - from emergency personnel to Red Cross volunteers - have earned high marks for their initial response to Monday's devastating tornadoes, the worst in the city's history.

The next step - recovery - will take longer and test the area's resilience in other ways.

"Everything we have seen indicates very good response" from local officials, says Billy Penn, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For example, coordinating the fire and police departments from various communities can be a logistical nightmare. But in the handful of cities and suburbs hardest hit by this week's storm, the jurisdictions appeared to work well.

That was due, in part, to FEMA-led training that helped the localities better coordinate their responses. That training, which took place months before the 1995 Murrah bombing, worked well in that disaster and has not been lost since.

"What the Murrah bombing did was give us a sense of structure," says Maj. Jerry Cason of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.

When outside emergency personnel responded to Moore's call for help, the result was so seamless it was as if "you have got a community that has one large fire department," adds Jon Hansen, assistant fire chief for Oklahoma City.

Since the Murrah bombing, local emergency personnel have also beefed up their training and equipment. The bombing prompted the city's fire department, for example, to improve its training in rescuing people from collapsed structures. The training paid off this week as firefighters sifted through the wreckage looking for survivors.

In all, nearly 600 people were treated for tornado-related injuries and released from area hospitals on Tuesday, according to the American Red Cross. Another 154 had not yet been released. Early estimates are that $225 million in property has been damaged or destroyed.

The local Red Cross also responded quickly, partly because of all the training that took place with thousands of volunteers in the aftermath of the bombing. "Oklahoma is a strong volunteer region," says Steve Chase, a Red Cross spokesman. "The response has been tremendous."

Tuesday night the group opened 10 shelters and has now set up five aid stations across the metropolitan area.

The state's attorney general also got in on the act. Within 24 hours of the storm, he was already warning local merchants not to gouge residents for certain necessities.

Still, the recovery is just beginning. Although electric utilities have restored power to most of the more than 145,000 Oklahoma homes affected by the storm, some 15,000 to 20,000 homes are not likely to get electricity soon because of downed power lines and other complications.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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