With thousands of destroyed houses, forty-six deaths and damage estimates topping the $5 billion mark, victims of Oklahoma’s two EF-5 tornadoes are asking the same question: What have we learned?
The answers are almost as varied as those asking the question.
For even as residents clear out the last of the debris from the storms and begin the process of rebuilding their lives, the question continues to be asked.
And though some people are hesitant to answer, some officials say the May storms offered the entire state an opportunity to learn how to better protect itself.
“Both May storms taught us a great deal,” said state Representative Joe Dorman, a Democrat from the small town of Rush Springs. “But one of the biggest lessons we learned was that most of our schools are not prepared to withstand a significant tornado.”
And though experts say the most EF-5s that hit the central part of the state are rare, Oklahoma has seen at least three storms of that magnitude since 1999.
For Dorman, that’s evidence enough that in Oklahoma bigger disasters are becoming the norm.
“They say that size of storms are rare, but it doesn’t seem like it here,” Dorman said. “Unfortunately, we see many disasters like those in May and its obvious that in ways we are not prepared for them.”
The best example, Dorman said, was storm shelters – or safe areas – in public schools.
“After the May 3, 1999 tornado and the other storms that have hit the state there wasn’t much of a call to add tornado shelters,” he said. “Sadly, it took the death of public school children to get the public’s attention. Now, we’re seeing a huge push to fund the construction of safe rooms and safe areas in schools.”
Following the May 21 tornadoes, Dorman filed legislation during the last days of the Oklahoma legislative session to earmark $500 million in state bond funds for the construction of storm shelters in public schools.
And though Dorman’s effort fell flat, the idea went national. Not long after the second tornado hit, the state’s public emergency management director, Albert Ashwood, said schools should have some type of safe room.
Today, a public-private partnership is working to raise funds to pay for construction of safe rooms across the state. And in Moore, Robert Romines, the superintendent of Moore schools, said the district would add safe rooms to at least four new elementary schools that were in planning and design stages.
Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis – who has served as mayor through all three of the city’s EF-5 tornado disasters – said city officials had partnered with representatives of the home building industry, the business community, insurance officials and private citizens to develop new ways to keep the residents of the central Oklahoma city safe.
Those ideas, he said, were sparked by lessons learned from previous disasters.
“We have a great community,” Lewis said. “It’s terrific. But, honestly, I’m tired of looking for bodies. We have to take this opportunity to make our community safer. These storms and their destruction are a lesson for all of us.”
Like Dorman and others, Lewis wants safe rooms in public schools. In addition, the mayor has called for changes in building codes to require storm shelters or safe areas in private homes and multi-family dwellings.
And though Lewis’ first attempt at a change in building codes met with resistance, he said Moore was looking to Joplin, Missouri, as an example of how a city developed new policies to make its residents safer.
“We’re taking a lesson from all this,” he said. “We’re looking at other examples to see what can and should be done.”
Dorman agreed. He said the storms were part of “a very painful lesson” learned by all Oklahomans.
“The problem we have in Oklahoma is that we’re pretty tough,” he said. “And we have this attitude that it will never happen to us. I believe that’s why so many Oklahomans don’t have shelters or insurance. They don’t believe anything will happen to them.”
Oklahoma’s top disaster official agreed. And even though state government and cities take some steps to protect residents, Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said, the biggest effort must come from the residents, themselves.
“There are many things we can learn from every disaster,” Ashwood said. “And there are many things we can take care of at a public level. But it’s up to the individual homeowners to take protection for themselves and their families.”
And in Oklahoma, a state with an ancient history of natural disasters, Ashwood said people tend forget the problem after a couple of months.
“Many people stand outside and watch them,” he said. “But I, myself, have never seen one. When they sound the sirens I’m in a shelter. It’s not time to go outside.”
Ashwood said the state has also learned how to speed up the time it takes to remove debris following a storm. He said his agency works with others to continue to refine way to make clean up and recovery as swift as possible.
“There are so many elements. So many things that people don’t consider such as mental health, individual health, the effects the storms have on the economy,” he said. “All of these things have to be examined. We’re going to have to address them and see what improvements we can make.”
But insurance industry executives, however, said they are still evaluating what lessons they can take from the May storms.
Dave Ramsey, CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of Oklahoma, said the past five years have been very difficult ones for insurance companies that write policies in Oklahoma.
“The thing is, the lesson is still being learned,” Ramsey said. “This is the fifth year in a row that portions of Oklahoma have been devastated. It’s a disturbing trend.”
It’s also expensive.
Data from the state insurance commissioner’s office shows that more than 36,000 claims for both businesses and residences were filed following both tornadoes.
And those numbers, Ramsey said, are hammering the industry.
Ramsey pointed to loss rations over the past five years as evidence of the difficulty faced by insurance companies who do business in the Sooner State.
“Since 2007, the loss ratios for homeowner’s insurance in Oklahoma are at 133 percent,” he said.
In 2010 that figure was 163.3 percent. And those figures don’t include the hailstorms of 2012, he said.
“It’s a picture that is disturbing,” Ramsey said. “When you’re paying out 14 cents more than every dollar collected, that’s a problem. Insurance companies can’t survive that way.”
He said the problem has become so bad that at least three insurance companies announced they would no longer write policies in Oklahoma due to high losses.
“If the trend continues, it could be a problem,” he said. “You have to have a stable insurance market to encourage economic development. If the insurance industry isn’t there, things stop.”
Ramsey said insurance industry officials would hold a summit in August to explore new ways to serve their customers, provide quality insurance and mitigate big losses.
“I think we’re going to have to be creative. We’re looking at everything – from wind and hail pools to market assistance to reinsurance,” he said. “We’re going to have to open our imaginations and see what is out there.”
State regulators say they support the efforts to improve the market and increase safety for Oklahomans. Oklahoma’s insurance commissioner, John Doak, said part of the discussion should also be on preparedness.
Doak, who has hosted several tornado summits for the insurance industry since 2010, said state officials have modeled their new response system after states that face hurricanes and other disasters.
Doak said partnering with agencies and groups across the spectrum helps to protect lives and speed recovery.
“We keep learning,” he said. “We saw the best practices outcome. We learned from Joplin, from Tuscaloosa from others. We now have broad partnerships. It’s all part of a bigger lesson.”
Doak pointed to efforts such as the insurance village and agreements with federal officials as ways the state continues to learn and improve its disaster recovery efforts.
“The insurance village was a great example,” he said. “It was staged at the First Baptist Church of Moore because of the church’s high visibility from the Interstate. Everything was there, together. There were disaster teams to help residents, industry representatives and state agencies, all in one place. That had never been done before.”
The village was so well thought out, he said, that residents could charge their cell phones, get a rental car and, in some cases, have their claims paid on the spot.
“We even used satellite imagery,” he said. “Companies were able to pull satellite photos of the neighborhood from before and after the storm. When an agent saw the home was completely gone, it was easy to process a claim for a total loss.”
Doak said Oklahoma’s banks and financial institutions also worked with state and industry officials to reduce the hold time on insurance fund payments. Checks were processed quickly and many customers had funds in their account without the traditional hold.
“We worked with banks and asked them to put no holds on checks from companies paying claims. We had mobile banks and ATMs. It was all, really, in the best interest of the customer.”
Doak said his office also sent in fraud teams to protect residents from unscrupulous contractors and builders who prey on storm victims.
“We deployed our anti-fraud unit. We worked with customers and municipalities, such as the city of Moore to make sure contractors wouldn’t take advantage of the customers. We sent those units in marked vehicles into the neighborhoods. You could tell that some contractors were very nervous but it sent a strong message.”
Yet even with the planning, the effort and the partnerships, Doak, Lewis, Ramsey and others know that at some point, there will be another storm, another disaster.
But by continuing to apply the lessons learned from May’s storms and the experience gained from past disasters; Oklahoma, the trio believes, would be better prepared and better protected.
“We know there will be another tornado,” Lewis said. “We know there will be another disaster. But we’ve learned a great deal and we continue to learn a great deal. It’s an ongoing effort and it’s not something that you can ever stop. We all have to take steps and we all have to be prepared. And we all have to keep learning.”
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