A public safety lesson learned in person

PennWell is headquartered in Tulsa, Okla., and many of us watched the news and weather with trepidation as the tornado hit Oklahoma City on Monday, May 20. Oklahoma City is about 100 miles west and slightly south of Tulsa, and the storm was headed northeast. We in Tulsa were extremely lucky that the system that spawned this tornado, which was 1.3 miles wide and had estimated peak winds of 200 to 210 miles per hour, passed to the north of our city.

At least 24 people were killed during the tornado, and about 2,400 homes were damaged in the cities of Moore and Oklahoma City. About 10,000 people were directly impacted by the tornado, with 237 injured, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. Insurance claims are likely to top $1 billion, says the Oklahoma Insurance Commission.

I happened to be working from home that day and heard the tornado sirens go off three times, each incident making me contemplate heading to the closest thing we have to a safe room: our bathroom. Our house, like most others in the area, does not have a basement.

In fact, for many communities in Oklahoma, the local schools are considered the safe shelters. So, I’m sure it made sense for the parents whose children were in school to leave them there, in what they thought was security. I completely understand this sentiment, as I have two school-age children and I remember being grateful they were “safe” at school while I was listening to the sirens. (I later learned a tornado had passed 4 miles north of my house.)

Unfortunately, this security was not what it seemed. Seven of the nine children killed were at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., when the storm hit. By comparison, all the students at Briarwood Elementary School survived. Why? Basically it comes down to the school’s construction. Essentially just a matter of better architectural design with regard to tornado survival. Each group of classrooms at Briarwood Elementary, organized into pods, had an opening to the outside and teachers were able to crawl through that open area and pass children over the rubble. Plaza Towers Elementary had a more traditional design of a long line of classrooms under a single roof. The roof and walls piled on top of each other during the collapse, trapping people inside. Purportedly Plaza Towers Elementary had a basement, and several of the children were reported to have drowned after being trapped.

Neither of these two schools had a safe room, which are designed to sustain winds up to 250 mph.

Natural disasters happen. That’s simply a fact of life, and all the preparation in the world cannot avert them. All we can do is try our best not to become a casualty.

Luckily, for the hydropower industry, there are plenty of things dam owners are doing to ensure the safety of people living near dams. We recognize the importance of these efforts on Friday, May 31, when we celebrate National Dam Safety Awareness Day. This day was established in 1999 to commemorate the devastation that occurred on May 31, 1889, when the South Fork Dam in Johnstown, Pa., failed. By contrast with the Oklahoma City tornado, this dam failure resulted in the deaths of 2,209 people and left thousands homeless. It remains the worst dam failure in U.S. history. And that’s good news. It means the improvement of dam safety programs has dramatically reduced the loss of life from dam failures. However, ongoing attention and investment are necessary to protect lives and property and to preserve the valuable benefits that dams provide.

On this day, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, Federal Emergency Management Agency and state dam safety programs encourage the public to learn about the benefits of dams and the risks associated with potential dam incidents and failures. Education is vital. People who know and understand the risks are more likely to react appropriately and responsibly during natural disasters. So I think I will have to come up with a little better plan than running to the bathroom before the next tornado scare.

What are you doing to educate the public and get the word out about your efforts and the public’s role in dam safety? Tell us about any special programs you have in place, how they are working, and what more you plan to do in the future. If there’s one thing I have learned, it’s that you can never be too prepared.

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