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Two Days. Two May Tornadoes.


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.

 Damage Sustained at Moore Medical CenterOn May 20, 2013 an EF-5 tornado struck the town of Moore, Okla. The mile wide tornado caused extensive damage to the Moore Medical Center. In the photo, the exterior of the medical center show the exposed damage caused from the strong winds in excess of 200 mph. Photo courtesy of Norman Regional Health System

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.

Moore Medical Center Destruction following TornadoPhoto of the destruction the May 20, 2013 EF-5 tornado caused the Moore Medical Center. The medical center took a direct hit from the tornado, fortunately those who sought shelter, patients, and employees were not injured. Photo courtesy of Norman Regional Health System

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.

Photo of the Tornado that Struck the Moore Medical CenterThis photo shows the mile wide tornado that struck the town of Moore, Okla. on May 20, 2013. The EF-5 tornado caused massive damage to several hospitals, schools, and hundreds of homes and businesses. Photo courtesy of Chance Coldiron

3:21 p.m.:

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.

Damage Sustained to Moore Medical CenterAn EF-5 struck the town of Moore, Okla. in May 2013, causing extensive damage to the Moore Medical Center. This surgery suite shows the extensive amount of damage the tornado caused. This room was being used as a delivery room, before it had to be evacuated. Photo courtesy of Norman Regional Health System

3:30 p.m.:

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.

Damage at Moore Medical Center following TornadoThis used to be a welcome/reception area for the Moore Medical Center. An EF-5 tornado with wind gusts in excess of 200 mph, struck the medical center and caused extensive damage to the facility. Photo courtesy of Norman Regional Health System

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.

History is a great teacher


meeting with tornado survivor Washington, Ill., December 5, 2013 -- Rev. David Myers, left, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, speaks to First Baptist Church Pastor Joshua Monda who is helping some of his parishioners with cleanup in areas impacted by the recent tornadoes. Myers met with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster groups to discuss responses to the disaster and discuss coordination and collaboration between partners. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

History is a great teacher. 

Associate Pastor Ben Davidson of Bethany Community Church learned a valuable lesson during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that benefitted him and his congregation the morning of Nov. 17, 2013, when a powerful tornado tore through Washington IL. 

His quick thinking reminds me when disasters occur; having a plan can save lives and help pivot a community toward a strong recovery. I have learned this lesson many times through the faith leaders I’ve engaged as director of the DHS Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

On Sunday morning Pastor Davidson was preparing to begin his adult Sunday school class, when he received an emergency phone call.  A tornado had touched down and their church was in its path.

Immediately he and the staff worked to move the congregation --particularly the children -- to their designated shelter in the church location and they began to pray together as the storm passed through their community. 

The entire congregation comforted one another through what Pastor Davidson recalls as "the longest 45 minutes of my life." Once all congregants were accounted for and that families could leave the sheltered location Pastor Davidson immediately went home to confirm the safety of his children who were at home sick that morning.  

Immediately following the disaster, Bethany Community Church joined its fellow members of the Washington Ministerial Association, AmeriCorps and the Illinois Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster to help coordinate the community’s recovery efforts. 

meeting with pastor in washington illinoisWashington, Ill., December 5, 2013 -- Associate Pastor Ben Davidson, right, of Bethany Community Church shows Rev. David Myers, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, supplies that have been donated to help local residents impacted by the recent tornadoes. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Since the devastating event, more than 4,000 community volunteers have registered with Bethany Community Church to help their loved ones and neighbors during disasters.  Their effort and commitment will help to increase the community’s resilience and ensure they are better prepared for emergencies.

The story of Washington, IL, and Bethany Community Church is a reminder of the care and compassion that faith-based organizations can provide all survivors in times of disaster. Their story reinforces the power of a whole community, “survivor centric” approach and the important role and responsibility of faith leaders in preparing their communities before disasters strike.

I encourage you to know what to do before disaster strikes by joining the thousands of faith-based and community members on the National Preparedness Coalition faith-based community of practice and connecting with faith and community leaders across the country working on preparedness.

Being prepared contributes to our national security, our nation’s resilience, and our personal readiness.

meeting volunteers around illinois tornado damageWashington, Ill., December 5, 2013 -- Rev. David Myers, Senior Advisor to the FEMA Administrator/Director Center of Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, center, speaks with NECHAMA Jewish Response to Disaster operations manager Dan Hoeft, left, and All Hands Volunteers director of US Disaster Response Sherry Buresh, second from left, as well as other volunteers in a neighborhood where the groups are helping with volunteer support for cleanup. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Using Mitigation to Save Lives: Alabama Reaches A Milestone


There is no question that April 27, 2011 changed the lives of Alabamians. On that one day, our state experienced more than 60 confirmed tornadoes causing widespread devastation. Soon after, we decided to do all we could to make our state safer in the future.

In the days, weeks and months following the tornadoes, Governor Bentley and I toured the state and heard the personal stories of disaster survivors.  Many of them told us how they only had moments to find safety while praying for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

They were the lucky ones that day.  No matter how much they had lost, they were grateful to still be here, and live through one of the state’s most devastating disasters.  Unfortunately, more than 250 people lost their lives during that 24-hour span of tornadoes.

Once my staff and I grasped the sheer magnitude of what had just happened, we all knew we had to do something to prevent this from happening again.

Pratt City, Ala., May 11, 2011 -- Blue tarps dot the landscape of a section of Pratt City hit by the April 27th tornado. Tarps are used to try and protect contents from further damage in homes not completely destroyed. FEMA has provided thousands of tarps to Alabama residents since the storms. Pratt City, Ala., May 11, 2011 -- Blue tarps dot the landscape of a section of Pratt City hit by the April 27th tornado. Tarps are used to try and protect contents from further damage in homes not completely destroyed. FEMA has provided thousands of tarps to Alabama residents since the storms.

The weeks following the disaster, Governor Bentley made it his priority to utilize a FEMA program known as the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.  This program is based on a percentage of the federal disaster cost from the tornadoes, with FEMA paying as much as 75 percent of the costs for families and communities to install safe rooms to prevent or minimize the effects of future disasters.

Having this program available to us was only one part of the equation; the next part was ensuring the public and community leaders understood how this program would benefit them.

In June 2011, a joint effort with FEMA, private and public sector partners, the Alabama Emergency Management Agency hosted the Safer Alabama Summit. This event discussed future mitigation projects that would help our communities rebuild safer and stronger.

Tuscaloosa, Ala., June 13, 2011 -- Federal Coordinating Officer Albie Lewis leads a panel discussion at the Safer Alabama Summit on mitigation. Mitigation helps reduce the loss of life and property in the event of a disaster. Tuscaloosa, Ala., June 13, 2011 -- Federal Coordinating Officer Albie Lewis leads a panel discussion at the Safer Alabama Summit on mitigation. Mitigation helps reduce the loss of life and property in the event of a disaster.

After that event, what I call the “real” work began and that included our mitigation staff working with FEMA’s staff and the sub-applicants to receive, process and review more than 4,500 applications for safe rooms. They also processed applications for generators, alert notification systems and the hardening of portions of Druid City Hospital in Tuscaloosa.

In just over two years, or 26 months to be exact, I’m proud to say Governor Bentley awarded and the mitigation staff obligated approximately $77 million to the great citizens of Alabama. This was unprecedented for our state and, possibly for any state in the U.S.

I attribute the success in which we distributed the grant so quickly to the leadership of Governor Bentley and the relationship we have built with our local and federal partners. The way my staff devoted countless hours to working with the necessary parties to get the applications completed showed their unwavering dedication to the people of Alabama, but it also echoed the sentiment of my entire staff—April 27, 2011 is a day we will never forget!

The Big Picture: The role of mapping in assessing disaster damages

Almost two years to the day of the Joplin tornado anniversary, a devastating EF-5 tornado hit the town of Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, 2013. The path of the Moore tornado was 17 miles long and two miles wide.   After a devastating event like a tornado, assessing the damages and painting a picture of the affected community is of utmost importance.  The better information first responders and emergency managers have about damaged areas, the more effectively they can prioritize areas of needs and deliver services.

From the start of the response, geospatial teams from across multiple agencies and the private sector had a game plan and an expectation of deliverables needed to bring clarity to a complex situation.  Almost immediately after the tornado, our geospatial analysts began producing baseline information maps (i.e. demographics, population density, and economic statistics) to provide situational awareness to the response teams. 

map of tornado damagePublicly available aerial imagery was leveraged with demographic information to show the impact of the tornado’s path (Map Credit: ESRI)

Within the first few hours after the tornadoes struck Moore, Civil Air Patrol (CAP) was leveraged by the State of Oklahoma to collect aerial imagery along the tornado path. FEMA added to this effort via a Mission Assignment to collect ground photos of the devastation.  All of the images collected from the CAP team were geo-tagged and uploaded to the FEMA Geoplatform. In addition to the CAP imagery, FEMA leveraged a new DHS contract for high-resolution aerial imagery. Combined, this imagery assisted us in delivering house by house geospatial damage assessments of the affected area.  A major contributor to this effort was the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).  Collectively, the FEMA/NGA team was able to deliver highly accurate geospatial damage assessments within four days of the event. These assessments were leveraged by various response and recovery programs across all levels of government to focus their efforts on the most heavily impacted sites.

map of tornado damagePublicly available imagery was leveraged to see a before or after of the affected area. (Map Credit: ESRI)

One of the main goals of FEMA’s geospatial team is to provide the accurate, readily available, and timely information to support first responders and local officials.  By posting the data we collect and analyze publicly, private companies (such as Google’s Crisis Map of the Oklahoma Tornado) can leverage government provided information to reach a larger audience during times of crisis.  Survivors can use the interactive maps to check the affected areas, and more importantly their personal property from a remote location, without disrupting response efforts or putting themselves in dangerous conditions. 

The groundwork for the geospatial team’s response to Moore was laid two years earlier in response to the Joplin tornado of May 2011. After the Joplin tornado, a pilot project was launched to conduct house by house damage assessments using aerial imagery.  The initial pilot project produced over 8,000 detailed damage assessments which leveraged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) imagery.  In addition to NOAA imagery, CAP was identified as having the capabilities to collect initial situation awareness aerial photos.  The assessments completed during the pilot program were done rapidly and proved to be very accurate. 

Timely, accurate information displayed on a map has always been useful to emergency responders – and I’m looking forward to continuing our work and contributing to the emergency management team’s response to emergencies.  For more on the efforts of FEMA’s geospatial team, visit our Geoplatform.

Here's the current, clickable Oklahoma tornado situation map, along with other images from the May 20 tornado that struck Moore:

View Larger Map

map of tornado damageNational Geospatial-Intelligence Agency preliminary damage assessments displayed on FEMA'’s GeoPlatform. (Map credit: FEMA)

map of tornado damageTornado situation map with ground and aerial imagery. The viewer can click on any symbol to display data and photos associated with that particular location. (Map credit: FEMA)

All that Stuff Called Debris


As you have seen on TV, a tornado leaves behind large amounts of wreckage and debris.  Unfortunately, that debris is generally made up of people’s homes, community buildings, cars, trees, and all sorts of things that a tornado may destroy with winds that can exceed 200 MPH. In order for disaster survivors to even think about rebuilding their homes or their schools or hospitals the debris needs to be picked up and removed.  FEMA and the federal government can assist by helping to pay debris removal costs.

tornado debrisMoore, Okla., May 22, 2013 -- Residents look at the place their home stood after a tornado struck the community of Moore, Oklahoma on May 20th. Andrea Booher/FEMA

Local and tribal officials such as mayors, county commissioners, school superintendents, and emergency management officials ultimately make the decisions about how debris gets picked up, where it goes, and who does the work. Generally speaking, they have several options. They can have their own employees do the work, local volunteers and organizations can help, the town could hire a company with heavy equipment, or they could request assistance from the state who can ask the federal government to help if necessary. At this point local officials in Oklahoma are deciding which of these options they will use to go about getting all the debris picked up.

At FEMA, our role is very much a support role by joining the whole community team of local, state and tribal officials, disaster relief organizations, volunteers, and disaster survivors. One of our most valuable contributions to the mission is in the form of funding. As the debris left by the storm is being picked up, FEMA works with the state, local, and tribal officials to provide federal reimbursement for the removal costs. If you’re interested in what FEMA can fund, you can look at our Debris Management Guide.

search and rescue in tornado debrisMoore, Okla., May 22, 2013 -- FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (Nebraska Task Force 1) team members search house to house for survivors in a tornado devastated neighborhood. Andrea Booher/FEMA 

We can also assist the state with technical experts from FEMA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who can offer assistance to local and tribal officials on debris management. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may also provide guidance on how to safely handle hazardous waste debris. In Oklahoma, FEMA will be providing additional funding above our normal 75 percent cost share funding for debris that is quickly picked up through a new pilot program.  Remember, the quicker the debris is picked up, the faster people can rebuild their homes.

Local and tribal officials may ask disaster survivors to help with debris removal by bringing debris from their property to the curb or by helping to sort the debris into different categories. If you try to move debris please be careful. The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality published guidance on debris management for residents, including how to handle chemicals and other hazardous debris.

All of the debris typically doesn’t just end up in the landfill. It is often sorted before being picked up or taken to a staging site where it is sorted. Just like taking your garbage out on a normal day, items should be recycled and used again helping the environment and in some cases being sold, such as precious metals like cooper, for money.  With FEMA’s new pilot program, your local or tribal government may be able to use proceeds they earn from the recycling of debris for other debris removal or emergency management needs. 

The removal of debris is a big job, but FEMA remains committed to assisting state, tribal and local officials and helping their communities in the recovery effort. If you would like to join the team and help those who were affected by the Oklahoma tornado, we have some information on our website, or you can visit the Oklahoma Strong webpage.

tornado debris damaged carMoore, Okla., May 22, 2013 -- Moore resident looks at home destruction caused by an F5 tornado that struck on May 20. Andrea Booher/FEMA

Oklahoma Tornadoes – Update & Photos from the Ground


meeting fema staff at disaster recovery centerMoore, Okla., May 22, 2013 -- Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, center, and FEMA Deputy Administrator Rich Serino, left visit a Disaster Recovery Center that is set up to help residents impacted by the recent tornado that swept through the area on May 20, 2013.

Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families and communities affected by the tornadoes in Central Oklahoma.  We continue to coordinate the federal response efforts in supporting our state, local, and tribal partners on the ground.  Here are a few quick updates on what’s happening now:

  • We’re encouraging those impacted by the storms to apply for FEMA assistance at on their computer or phone, or by calling 800-621-3362.  So far, over 2,200 Oklahomans have applied for disaster assistance.
  • Three Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams are on the ground helping survivors register for FEMA assistance.  These teams are using internet-enabled tablets to register people as quickly as possible, as well as to record any unmet needs that affected individuals or communities are experiencing.
  • Two disaster recovery centers are open near damaged areas so those affected by the tornadoes can speak face-to-face to staff from FEMA and the state.  At the centers, staff answer questions about the disaster assistance process or what help may be available. 

In addition to the items above, more than 127,000 liters of water and nearly 30,000 meals have been delivered to the state at a Federal Staging Area in Oklahoma City in support of the local response efforts.  There are many other actions our federal, state, local, and tribal partners are taking and you can find the latest at

We’ve seen an outpouring of support for those impacted by the deadly storms, so if you’re outside of the impacted area and are looking for ways to help those that have been affected, check out  It has information on donating and volunteering responsibly – by doing things like donating only through trusted organizations, volunteering through established channels, and sending cash (not goods) to organizations providing relief. 

As we often say at FEMA, responding to emergencies takes a team effort.  Minutes after the tornadoes struck, this team moved into action, including first responders, federal, state, local, and tribal governments, first responders, non-profit organizations, volunteer groups, and members of the public.  There have been a lot of stories of heroism amidst this tragic tornado, so I wanted to share a few visuals and updates from how the emergency management team is helping on the ground. 

Texas Task Force 1, Urban Search and Rescue

rescuers pull out dog in cageWhile conducting a rubble pile search yesterday, Squad 2 members came across a void space with two dogs in a crate. After freeing the dogs, the crew carried them down the pile to safety. (Photo credit: Texas Task Force One)


Nebraska Task Force 1

rescuers remove debrisMoore, Okla., May 22, 2013 --Federal Urban Search and Rescue Team Nebraska Task Force 1 work with local fire fighters in searching a ravine for potential survivors of the recent tornado. A tornado destroyed many parts of the community on May 20, 2013. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

rescuers remove debrisCAPTION: Moore, Okla., May 22, 2013 -- FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (NE TF1) team members search house to house for survivors in tornado devastated neighborhood in Moore, Oklahoma. Andrea Booher/FEMA

Oklahoma National Guard

national guard in damaged streetOklahoma National Guardsmen conduct search and rescue operations in Moore, Okla., May 21, 2013, after a devastating tornado killed dozens of people there, May 20. The guardsmen are assigned to the 63rd Civil Support Team. (Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kendall James)

American Red Cross

american red cross suppliesMay 21, 2013, Moore, Oklahoma. Red Cross volunteers Doris Baker (left) and Tiffany Stuhr (right) from Oklahoma help distribute supplies in the affected communities. (Photo credit: Jason Colston/American Red Cross.)

red cross volunteerA volunteer for the American Red Cross cleans a photo that was recovered from the damaged area. (Photo credit: American Red Cross)

Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services

salvation army disaster suppliesMay 22, 2013, Salvation Army staff unload supplies for those impacted by the Oklahoma tornadoes. (Photo credit: Salavation Army Emergency Disaster Services)

Feed the Children

Oklahoma Humane Society

humane society check upMay 21, 2013, Staff and volunteers work intake as animals come in. We've had 70 animals come in, and expect to have about 200 come through our doors. (Photo credit: Central Oklahoma Humane Society)

Oklahoma Tornado Response & How to Help


Yesterday evening a large tornado touched down near Moore, Oklahoma, leaving massive destruction in its path. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families and communities affected by the tornadoes.

presidential briefingWashington, D.C., May 21, 2013 -- President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the ongoing response to the devastating tornadoes and severe weather that impacted Oklahoma, in the State Dining Room of the White House, May 21, 2013. Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino accompany the President. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

At the direction of the President, Administrator Fugate is in Oklahoma to ensure all Federal resources are supporting our state, local, and tribal partners in life saving and safety operations, including ongoing search and rescue.  Yesterday, President Obama declared a major disaster for the State of Oklahoma, making federal funding available to support affected individuals and families in the counties of Cleveland, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, and Pottawatomie. 

Federal assistance has been made available to support immediate response and recovery efforts, including:

  • Preliminary damage assessment teams, comprised of representatives from the state, FEMA and the Small Business Administration, are on the ground and will begin assessments today, and more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after the assessments are fully completed.
  • Three national Urban Search and Rescue Teams (Texas Task Force 1, Nebraska Task Force 1 and Tennessee Task Force 1) and an Incident Support Team have been deployed to support the immediate response efforts.
  • One national and two regional Incident Management Assistance Teams are deployed to the state emergency operations center in Oklahoma City to coordinate with state and local officials in support of recovery operations.
  • Two Mobile Emergency Response Support Teams are in Oklahoma to provide self-sustaining telecommunications, logistics, and operations support elements, to assist in the immediate response needs and additional teams are being deployed.
  • Three Disaster Survivor Assistance Teams are scheduled to arrive later today into communities to perform the Assess, Inform, and Report (AIR) Missions, a tool to help federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners gather detailed information on the affected areas during the critical first hours, days and weeks after a disaster strikes. DSATs will address immediate and emerging needs of disaster survivors including: on-site registration, applicant status checks, on-the-spot needs assessments, and access to partners offering survivor services.
  • FEMA activated the National Response Coordination Center in Washington, D.C., a multi-agency coordination center that provides overall coordination of the federal response to natural disasters and emergencies, to support state requests for assistance, and FEMA’s Region VI Response Coordination Centers (RRCC) located in Denton, Texas remains activated.

In addition to sharing the role of FEMA and our federal partners, I also wanted to share tips for those in the Oklahoma City area or looking to help survivors:

  • If you’re in the affected area: We encourage residents in declared counties to register for FEMA assistance online or on your smartphone at or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).  Disaster applicants with a speech disability or hearing loss but use a TTY device, should instead call 1-800-462-7585 directly.

    Follow the instructions from local officials and take the recommended protective measures to safeguard life and property while response efforts continue. Roads are very likely to be damaged or blocked by debris, and traffic jams slow emergency managers and first responders as they attempt to reach hard-hit areas.
  • If you’re trying to get in touch with friends/family in the impacted area: Use the American Red Cross Safe & Well website (or mobile site), text messaging, and social media accounts to check-in with friends & family.  After a disaster, phone lines may be congested, so using other communication methods can be more successful.
  • If you’re not in the affected area, but are looking to help: For those looking for ways to help tornado survivors, remember: go through trusted organizations and only send goods that have been requested by local authorities.  If you’re considering donating money, cash donations are often the best way to help. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters has a list of organizations that you can feel confident in making a donation to. You can also follow NVOAD on Facebook and on Twitter @NationalVOAD.

    For more information on helping survivors after a disaster, visit and

As President Obama said this morning, we will continue to bring all available resources to bear as we support those impacted by the deadly tornado. For ongoing updates on FEMA’s response efforts, follow @FEMA and @FEMAregion6 on Twitter or visit the Oklahoma tornado disaster page.

Severe Weather throughout the South & Midwest


As the risk for severe weather conditions continue throughout parts of the Midwest and South, we wanted to take a second to remind everyone in areas expected to see severe weather to take necessary precautions now. We encourage all individuals in areas where severe weather is expected to listen to NOAA Weather Radio, especially as we head into the evening and overnight, and local news for severe weather updates and warnings and to always follow the direction provided by their local officials.

Here are a few severe weather terms you should familiarize yourself with now:

  • Severe Thunderstorm Watch - Tells you when and where severe thunderstorms are likely to occur. Watch the sky and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio or television for information.
  • Severe Thunderstorm Warning - Issued when severe weather has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar. Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property to those in the path of the storm. 
  • Tornado Watch - Tornadoes are possible. Remain alert for approaching storms. Watch the sky and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio or television for information. 
  • Tornado Warning - A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Take shelter immediately. 

As weather conditions often change quickly, it’s important to stay updated on your local forecast conditions at (or on your mobile device).

If severe weather is expected in your area, keep in mind these safety tips:

  • Continue to monitor your battery-powered radio or television for emergency information. 
  • Do not touch downed power lines or objects in contact with downed lines. Report downed power lines and electrical hazards to the police and the utility company. 
  • Injury may result from the direct impact of a tornado or it may occur afterward when people walk among debris and enter damaged buildings. Wear sturdy shoes or boots, long sleeves and gloves when handling or walking on or near debris. 
  • After a tornado, be aware of possible structural, electrical or gas-leak hazards in your home. Contact your local city or county building inspectors for information on structural safety codes and standards. They may also offer suggestions on finding a qualified contractor to do work for you.

Visit  for more tips on what to do if severe weather is expected in your area. You can also visit for safety tips on your mobile device.

FEMA Mitigation Assessment Team Report on Spring 2011 Tornadoes


A little over a year ago, hundreds of tornadoes touched down in the Southeastern and Midwestern portions of the United States between April 25 and April 28, 2011.  On May 22, only a few weeks later, a powerful 0.75-mile-wide tornado cut a 6-mile path through Joplin, MO.  These tornado events resulted in the tragic loss of life, destruction of thousands of homes and billions of dollars in building and infrastructure damage.  FEMA’s Building Science Branch responded by deploying a Mitigation Assessment Team of specialists to assess building damage across a five-state area comprised of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Because every individual loss is a community loss, our primary goal was to assist recovery efforts by distributing timely and applicable guidance for recovery and reconstruction. We assessed the performance of the buildings and various infrastructure affected by the tornadoes, document selected safe room and storm shelter performance in the affected areas, and describe the lessons learned that could reduce future loss of life and damage to buildings and infrastructure from tornado events.  A report with the results of our observations, conclusions and strategic actionable recommendations to help reduce future building damage and loss of life from tornadoes was recently published.

In the first months following the tornadoes, the MAT published eight Recovery Advisories, participated in the Safer Alabama Summit in June 2011, and held numerous public training sessions in affected areas in the summer of 2011 and spring of 2012. The report with the details of the MAT field observations, conclusions, and recommendations is now published and available to be downloaded as FEMA P-908, Mitigation Assessment Team Report – Spring 2011 Tornadoes: April 25-28 and May 22; Building Performance Observations, Recommendations, and Technical Guidance (May 2012). FEMA P-908 was released to the public on May 22, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the tornado event in Joplin.

The report was developed and reviewed by a team of over 200 design and construction experts from various industry groups, academic institutions, nonprofit associations, government agencies, and small and large businesses. FEMA P-908 presents the MAT’s observations, 47 conclusions, and 49 actionable recommendations directed at strategically improving public safety and building performance during tornado events through defining research needs, proposing national code and standard changes, and providing  local governments, individuals, design professionals, building owners and key federal agencies with actions they can take. FEMA P-908 also describes in detail the historic storms and building codes in the affected areas and includes an appendix with prescriptive guidance for enhanced construction techniques to improve the performance of wood-frame residential structures when impacted by tornadoes rated EF2 or less.

The MAT’s recommendations addressed a range of building and life-safety issues. Several of the recommendations are already being implemented: 

  • FEMA submitted a proposal in January 2012 to the International Code Council for the 2015 update of the International Building Code to require that a safe room or storm shelter be included when new schools and critical facilities meeting certain criteria are built; this proposal passed in the April 2012 committee hearings. 
  • A change to the risk category and addition of extensive commentary on tornado loads is being planned for submission to the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Minimum Design Loads for Buildings and Other Structures (ASCE 7).
  • This publication combined with FEMA's technical guidance for the construction of Individual and Community Safe Rooms, provides individual residents, community planners and emergency managers with the information necessary to get started on projects and plans that will better prepare them for next year.
  • FEMA is planning additional outreach activities to highlight the MAT’s observations, conclusions, recommendations, and reporting efforts.


What MAT means for the future

The MAT serves several purposes for future disasters and future mitigation activities. Future disasters with similar impacts will have the published MAT Reports and Recovery Advisories available to them immediately as an expert source of how buildings fail or resist extreme winds. As soon as the recovery starts, organizations involved in the recovery could use this existing pool of standards, best practices, and guidance to build back safer, stronger and more resilient.

The MATs work also helps FEMA continually validate the design and construction guidance it produces for the public, the success of FEMA funded Mitigation projects and the documentation needed to strengthen and update the voluntary, private sector, consensus building codes and standards in this county that the public relies on.

Visit for more information on the FEMA Building Science Branch.

Faith-Based Group Rebuilds Alabama Church Following 2011 Tornadoes

Editor's note: This was originally posted June 28, 2012, on the White House blog by David L. Myers, Director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships.

Tornadoes and fires hold more in common than being disasters: they can also make good neighbors.

This is uniquely true in Boligee, AL, a small rural town near the Mississippi border, and Hartville, OH, near Akron. It's a great story of faith communities helping each other -- and it has a beautiful twist at the end.

The story begins in and around Boligee in 1996, when four African American churches burned to the ground. Though it has never been proven, many suspect the fires were related to racial tension. Volunteers from around the world rebuilt the four churches -- including Little Zion Baptist Church -- with the assistance of Quakers and Mennonites.

Fast forward to April 27, 2011, when tornadoes tore through central Alabama, killing 139 people and destroying billions of dollars of property, including the Christian Valley Baptist Church in Boligee, home of a small African American congregation.


The Rev. Tracy Giles, Christian Valley’s pastor, didn’t know what to do. Insurance would cover $165,000, but estimates to rebuild the church exceeded $500,000. Pastor Giles heard about Mennonite Disaster Service and sat down over coffee with one of its coordinators, Jerry Klassen. Pastor Giles told Klassen, “I need a thread of hope.”

Klassen responded, “I can throw you a rope of hope.”

Klassen contacted Maple Grove Mennonite Church in Hartville, and soon skilled volunteers from several Hartville churches were making regular treks to Boligee. On Sunday, June 3, 2012, six months after the start of the rebuilding, Christian Valley Baptist Church commemorated its new opening; total cost was $160,000.

“It was God reaching across the borderline,” said Deacon Willie Cain.

The Rev. David L. Myers, a Mennonite minister and director of the DHS/FEMA Center for Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships, who participated in the dedication ceremony, said it was a mutual opportunity for service. “Christian Valley Baptist cannot be itself without a church to worship in, and Mennonite churches cannot be themselves without a service project.”

And here's the beautiful twist: one of the biggest challenges faced every year by thousands of disaster volunteers is finding housing during their time of service. That wasn't the case for the volunteers rebuilding Happy Valley Baptist Church.

Remember Little Zion Baptist Church, which was burned and rebuilt in 1996? That same church provided housing for more than 80 volunteers who traveled more than 800 miles from Hartville to Boligee.

Disasters of all kinds can indeed make good neighbors. 


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