Storm Shelter Program
In 1999, the City of Midwest City was hit with an F4 tornado that was only slightly less intensity than its F5 rating as it passed through the City of Moore. One hundred and eighty-eight homes were destroyed and three lives were lost. Community shelters were overwhelmed and people’s lives endangered while they tried to reach the community shelters as the tornado was bearing down on Midwest City. It became evident that there was a need to not only to make the location of private storm shelters more readily available to emergency responders but to greatly increase the number of private storm shelters within the City limits.
Private Storm Shelter Grants
In order to increase the safety of its citizens, the City’s Emergency Operations Director began applying for FEMA and American Red Cross grants. These grants would provide more citizens with private storm shelters through a cost sharing initiative. Prior to the 1999 tornado, there were 749 known shelters.
Storm Shelter Registration
The City ramped up its efforts to improve the storm shelter registration process and the way that data is shared out to emergency responders. The effort continues today, and in 2015, we had over 2680 registered private storm shelters in our City limits. The shelter locations are obtained by GPS after installation and inspection by the City’s Building Inspectors, and registered shelters are mapped by the City’s GIS Division on shelter atlases and digitally for our EOC, Fire and Police Departments. Digital data is live to emergency responders via a mapping application on the iPad or Desktop PC, and updated shelter atlases are uploaded to emergency responder vehicle iPads on the days of inclement weather.
Access During a Storm
This information is accessible even in times when internet access fails or is slow. While all areas in the damage path of a tornado will be canvassed for survivors and injured, those with registered storm shelters increase the timeliness of emergency personnel reaching those that may be trapped in their shelter.
2015 OKAPA Award
In 2015, Midwest City won the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Planning Association Award for Outstanding Community Initiative for the Midwest City Storm Shelter Program. The name of the community initiative is the Midwest City Storm Shelter Program - A City’s Resilience in the Face of Natural Disaster. This project is a multi-faceted initiative that evolved from a single department, paper spreadsheet record of storm shelters installed by citizens, to a multi-department, largely grant-funded, storm shelter installation, registry and digital mapping program of more than 2680 private residential storm shelters. It was a city-wide effort to meet a pressing community need for safety during Oklahoma’s severe weather seasons. Though it was started immediately after the 1999 Tornado, it evolved and became what it is today between the years 2011-2014 when staff began to connect the dots and created a holistic approach to offer our citizens the best of available technology and manpower. While this may not sound like an unusual situation, it is actually quite unusual. Midwest City is leading the way for emergency responders across the State. The system that we now have in place surpasses most Cities current ability to respond to a devastating tornado.
Originality and Innovation, Effectiveness and Results, Participation
In order to explain the innovation behind Midwest City’s Storm Shelter Program, one must understand a little bit about the way communities normally function which is somewhat reactive. They strive to maintain a state of normalcy. Midwest City overcame an operating mode of reactivity by deciding to take a progressive approach: increasing the amount of private shelters that citizens had access to, mapping them out and becoming storm-ready. This decision embodied three of the top ten elements in resiliency planning: overcoming the normalcy bias, adopting a can-do attitude and taking action.
Considering others, communicating and networking are three more elements of resiliency planning that went into the next phase of the project. Departmental cooperation, information sharing and figuring out what the best course of action would be were all important after the shelters were paid for and put into place. Many cities map out new shelters; the installers even include coordinates with their building permit information. Utilizing the information available, mapping it out and having an emergency management strategy seem like the obvious next steps all cities would take, but they don’t. Recognizing how the information will be retrieved and utilized in a disaster are paramount to the success of a search and rescue effort. One obstacle to a successful search is the lack of an internet connection. Internet is commonly unavailable after a storm. In order to get around internet issues, a plan was devised to provide current information to emergency personnel on the day of an event via iPad technology. Dedicated planning staff makes this approach possible.
The National Academies Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters defines resilience as the ability to prepare and plan for, absorb and recover from or more successfully adapt to actual or potential adverse events. According to the American Journal of Community Psychology, in order for communities to build collective resilience, communities must reduce risk and resource inequities, engage local people in mitigation, create organizational linkages, boost and protect social supports, and plan for not having a plan which requires flexibility, decision making skills and trusted sources of information that function in the face of unknowns. Midwest City is following the steps listed above on their path to becoming a more resilient community.
This traumatic event changed the way that Midwest City viewed its role as a municipality. A tornado does not have any regard for City limits lines but City officials know all too well what those lines mean. The lines can be not only physical boundaries between one place and another but they also define who gets what based on statistical eligibilities. Cities are not required to apply for federal aid for disaster relief or prevention, but they usually get enough social pressure to do so upon a catastrophic event. When motivation is coming from the administration as well as the public as in Midwest City’s case, the probability of a stronger program emerges. Prior to the 1999 tornado, there were 749 known shelters. Today, there are 2686 registered storm shelters and a complete process in place to be ready for quick action in the aftermath of a devastating tornado.