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Emergency officials say Katrina prompting close look at emergency plans

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The devastation leveled on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina and the sluggish response of state and federal officials in the wake of the disaster is prompting Oklahoma officials to re-examine their own disaster plans.

Albert Ashwood, the head of Oklahoma's Emergency Management Office, said he's been forced to look at some of the assumptions that are in place with state and local response plans.

Specifically, he said most disaster plans rely heavily on the quick involvement of local responders _ police, fire and emergency medical personnel.

``Now we have to look at what if those people aren't at work, then who's the first responder?'' Ashwood said. ``In New Orleans, you had police and firefighters who were out looking for their families.

``Those are things we need to reanalyze.''

Ashwood is no stranger to handling a major disaster. On May 3, 1999, a tornado a half-mile wide roared through Oklahoma, leaving miles of destruction in its path. The twister was part of an outbreak of tornadoes that killed more than 40 people that day.

State and local emergency workers provided medical care and performed search-and-rescue operations.

``All disasters are local. They start locally and end locally,'' Ashwood said. ``The response that we assumed would be there, local fire, police and emergency, were there.''

Ashwood said specific changes as a result of Hurricane Katrina haven't yet been implemented, but there are certainly lessons that can be learned from the disaster.

``Every time you have a disaster .... whether it's Hurricane Katrina or the hurricanes in Florida, we have to analyze how the response was, how the recovery was. We have to take those lessons and learn from them and make sure you're prepared.''

Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis said a small tornado that hit the city in the fall of 1998 and damaged more than 100 homes proved invaluable in terms of preparation for the destruction that visited the next spring.

He said city officials knew the important role that local emergency responders played in the disaster and that waiting for federal or even state help could prove costly.

``You have to have a local plan,'' Lewis said. ``If you don't have a local plan, you're in trouble.

``If you've got to wait on FEMA or the state and you don't have a plan, you're going to wait a long time. It will seem like forever.''

Also implemented after the fall tornado was a local registry of underground shelters in the city so that rescue personnel could quickly locate survivors who may have been buried beneath piles of rubble.

``If you have a tornado this big, the house next door is probably going to be on top of your cellar,'' Lewis said.

Despite the quick response to the tornadoes in Moore, Lewis said emergency officials learned some lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Emergency preparation guidelines for residents now include a recommendation for up to three weeks of supplies, rather than three days.

``After we saw the disaster in Louisiana, we're encouraging people to store up to three weeks of food and water,'' he said.

The tornadoes that wreaked havoc on the state in 1999 are still fresh in the minds of truck driver Larry Bower and his wife, Linda. The couple lived in a three-bedroom brick house in Choctaw on a sprawling property that covered seven city lots and included a detached brick garage and large oak trees that dotted their yard.

When Larry heard the tornado sirens sound on the evening of May 3, 1999, he rushed to take shelter with his daughter at the nearby First Baptist Church. Just moments later, all that remained of his home were a few walls.

``It completely destroyed the home,'' said Bower, 52. ``The big oak trees that you couldn't reach your arms around _ one was pulled out of the ground, the other one was gone.

``It took the garage completely off the slab. I never even found a brick from that thing.''

Bower and his wife have since moved to Midwest City, another community hit hard by the May 3 tornado. He said it was just too emotionally difficult to rebuild in Choctaw.

``I have a storm cellar now,'' Bower said. ``We feel more safe that we have a place to go, and we have some canned goods and a flashlight.''

Watching the destruction that Hurricane Katrina levied on the Gulf Coast brought back painful memories for Bower, memories he said fade over time but never completely go away.

``It's not the rebuilding of your life. We rebuilt. It's the feeling so vulnerable,'' Bower said. ``You have something one minute, and the next minute you don't have anything.''
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