On a typical Sunday in May, I enjoy attending Journey Church and spending time with the family. May 19, 2013 was not a typical Sunday.
The National Weather Service had been reporting as early as May 16 that May 19 and 20 could be deadly.
For the past 15 years, I have been coaching, leading, and requiring Norman Regional Health System’s 2,500 employees to have a plan to protect themselves and our patients. At the time we had 3 hospitals: Moore Medical Center (MMC) in Moore, Okla. and 2 hospitals 8 miles south in Norman, Okla. Normally, my family travels the 20 miles with me to the hospital command center. This was not the case on that day in May. As I sat alone in the quiet hospital command center, dreadful words came from the live weather updates on TV. A massive, deadly tornado touches down in Norman, Okla., only a couple of miles east of our main hospital (Norman Regional Hospital), where I am working. I suddenly realize our hospitals are no longer in danger and feel a sense of relief knowing staff and patients are safe.
Almost instantly it hits me that massive EF-4 tornado, with winds from 166-200 MPH is heading directly for my family.
Knowing the plan I had been working on for 15 years at the hospital was solid – it only took a split second to realize my plan for my family had failed. Although I protect more than 2,500 people daily, my wife, 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son are in the tornado’s direct path without a place to survive.
Immediately, I text my wife pleading for her to drive the 1/8 mile to a neighbor that has a tornado shelter. As expected my fears are realized. I cannot call or text my family, neighbors, or anyone in the area. The tornado has wiped out all communication between us. Watching the storm live from a safe command center was heart-wrenching, wondering the fate of my loving family. Minutes later, I arrive home to a battered car, home, shattered windows in both and smiling kids holding softball-sized hail. It was like an Easter egg hunt with large hail stones for the kids. They had survived in the neighbor’s shelter. Immediately, we implemented a new family plan for the predicted severe weather the following morning.
When I returned home I was wondering how to approach the subject of nearly losing my family, $11,000 home damage, and having to pay the car deductible by taking our best car out of the garage. Instead of addressing any of these topics my only statement to my wife was “There will be storms with high likelihood of tornadoes tomorrow”. She asked, “What time and what is the plan?” We decided she should be at my office by 1pm, since the NWS said storms could form any time after 1 pm. She arrived on May 20, at 1:01 pm and stayed in the safe area while I proceeded to incident command area.
Twelve hours later:
On May 20, 2013 I promised myself to never allow my family to not have a proven plan. My family was to meet me at 1 p.m. in my office. As I dropped my car off and called my insurance carrier to have the windows replaced, I was receiving terrible news. The National Weather Service predicted a chance for larger tornadoes and more super cells after 2 p.m. I emailed all management positions at all three Norman Regional hospitals and every physician clinic to inform them today could possibly be worse than yesterday. As I typically do, I find a quiet place to say a quick prayer asking for guidance and courage to make the correct decisions.
As fate would have it one nurse manager out of three hospitals called to verify her plan with me. Shortly after our conversation, things changed quickly. Our worst nightmare was about the test every emergency plan we have ever constructed. A deadly EF-5 tornado with winds over 200 MPH was on the ground. Schools were in session, a baby had just been born, and another mother was in active labor. Hundreds of motorists were speeding into the entrances of our hospital, looking for shelter, as our courageous employees pull and direct them to a safe area. All of these innocent people are in the direct path of this monster tornado.
As I sit in the command center, instincts and experience took over. Some of the actions I remember clearly, others not so much. I immediately called for all leadership to join me in the command center at 3:04. It had been 24 minutes since I had put Moore Medical Center (our hospital in the tornado’s path) on alert. Typically, I place all three hospitals on alert when conditions and wind shear are this severe. This was not a typical day.
Now a mile-wide tornado was devastating the city of Moore. Watching live on TV, I informed our CEO that we will have massive amounts of injuries and causalities present to all three of our Emergency Departments from a storm of this magnitude. Our decision was tough – do we call a disaster code while the tornado is in our town and risk employees traveling back to work to save lives?
We did make the decision to call a Code Yellow (disaster code) to prepare staff for the huge influx of patients we will be receiving. Now with a command center congested with Leaders, it was evident this was as severe as the 1999 or the 2003 tornadoes. We are working diligently to protect lives and save those that are injured. We establish an incident commander and command staff. I quickly remember the lessons learned from Joplin, Missouri after taking two trips to that facility in hopes of better preparing our health system. A majority of our patients, staff and visitors have sought shelter in Moore Medical Center’s designated safe area with the exception of the single Nurse Manager who called me earlier. She was with a physician and another nurse assisting the mother who was in active labor. There were positioned on the second and highest floor.
About 48 minutes after I called the alert for this hospital (MMC) the EF-5 tornado has already wiped out two elementary schools, hundreds of homes, and killed way too many children and innocent citizens. Then, it slams into Moore Medical Center. The 200-mile-per-hour winds threw a Nissan Altima onto the second story roof above the laboring mother. More than 30 cars have been rolled onto the first floor rooftop. The winds also lifted a commercial dumpster from over 300 yards away and slammed it into the building. The winds ripped parts of the roof off the structure. Horrifyingly, the winds pulled the wall off the second floor surgery suite being used to deliver the baby. It ripped the wall apart like removing the lid off a can. With a 10-foot-by-10-foot hole in the wall, the staff put the patient in another room to protect the mother and unborn child.
Working in our command center we hear our extended work family, brothers, sisters, took a direct strike by the deadly tornado. Our command center full of busy command staff, preparing to care for what ended up being 140 patients, fell silent. Ten miles seemed like ten states away. Not a sound could be heard. No one in that room has ever shared what their thoughts were for that 1-2 minute period, but mine were of prayer and hope. Jumping back into action I immediately informed the CEO that we will have a huge loss of life in our hospital structure. We need to send the convoy we assembled 10 miles south of the storm to rescue our work family and patients. We start getting calls from the news media including CNN, and eventually those inside the building reach our command center requesting appropriate actions to take. Staff from Moore Medical Center informed me that they all survived and without injury. My response was that of disbelief and denial. It would be impossible. I’ve been in this business too long to know that is not how these situations end.
On a typical day a good plan can save some lives. On days that are not typical, facing two tornadoes with a focus on preparedness, a great plan can save every life in the building, including my family, and our work family.
On May 20, 2013 there were zero injured and zero killed at Moore Medical Center. I will be forever grateful for those that had the heart and courage to execute the plan, the first responders, those that delivered food and water, and every single person that assisted Norman Regional Health System.
Editor's Note: The views expressed by Shane Cohea do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA does not endorse any non-government organizations, entities, or services.