Okla. Leads Nation in Disaster Declarations

July 30, 2007

A combination of ice storms, flooding rains and tornadoes have left Oklahoma atop a dubious list. So far this year, the state has most federal disaster declarations in the country.

Oklahoma has received two declarations for severe storms, flooding and tornadoes, two more for severe winter storms that froze parts of the state in ice, and another for a round of severe winter storms that combined with flooding.

“The diversity of disasters we have is unique to Oklahoma for the most part,” said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma’s emergency management director. “It changes pretty fast in Oklahoma with the weather. I mean Will Rogers was right.”

Rogers is famously remembered for saying that anyone who doesn’t like the weather in Oklahoma need only wait a minute. The same has been true of weather-related disasters – and not just this year.

Among the 10 states with the most federal disaster declarations since 1953, Oklahoma has the highest rate per capita. Only Texas (80), California (72), Florida (59), New York (55) and Louisiana (53) have had more disaster declarations than Oklahoma’s 51 in that period, and all five of those states have higher populations.

Since the May 3, 1999, tornadoes, disasters have caused more than $502 million in damages in Oklahoma – and that doesn’t include the results of the five disasters this year that don’t have official damage totals yet. Preliminary estimates for this month’s flooding and severe storms are about $80 million.

The most expensive recent disaster, based on reimbursements by federal, state and local governments, was the Dec. 25, 2000, ice storm that inflicted $222 million in damage. The Jan. 30, 2002, ice storm caused $180 million in damage.

The May 3, 1999, tornadoes caused $47 million in damage and the May 8 and 9, 2003, twisters caused $6.7 million in damage.

“I always say, in some states the emergency responders and recovery workers have to depend on exercises to test their operations,” emergency management department spokeswoman Michelann Ooten said. “In Oklahoma, we do the real deal, unfortunately, all too often.”

Ashwood, president of the National Emergency Management Association, is proud of his ability to juggle the response to a variety of disasters.

“Eastern Oklahoma looks like Tennessee and western Oklahoma looks like Arizona,” Ashwood said. “We have every kind of disaster that goes along with those types of climates. We get the worst of both worlds across our state.”

Perhaps the state’s most unique disaster declaration came in September 2005, when an influx of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina sought shelter in Oklahoma.

“I never foresaw us becoming a hurricane state but, by golly, it happened,” Ashwood said. “I won’t rule anything out. Tsunami, hurricane, whatever. It’s just been crazy.”

Information from: The Oklahoman, www.newsok.com.

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