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Prepared for the Worst: Oklahoma Tribes Hope New Tornado Measures Are Enough

[node:summary]A year after devastating 2013 tornadoes, Oklahoma tribes are beefing up shelters, warning systems and rescue operations.

Tornadoes are as much a part of spring as blooming flowers in Oklahoma. But since last year’s devastating twisters, a new emphasis has been put on shelters, siren warning systems, and search-and-rescue, tribal disaster-preparation officials say.

Last year’s tornadoes in Moore, El Reno and Little Axe still weigh heavily on the minds of tribal emergency management teams and has motivated Oklahoma tribes to do more. The death of Caddo Nation member Catherine Begay, who perished in the Moore, Oklahoma tornado last May, especially hit home, as did the destruction of scores of houses.

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This year’s tornado season has been much less drastic so far, at least in Oklahoma, with the major exception being the April 27–30 tornado outbreak in Quapaw. The worst tornadoes have occurred outside of Oklahoma, with the most recent ones being Watford City, N.D. on May 26 and Garyville, La. on May 28. The official high season runs through the end of June, though the superstorms can occur at any time of year.

Search and rescue is one area being beefed up, said Chickasaw Nation spokesperson Tony Choate. Much of their training has focused on shelter management as well as client and damage assessment.

“We have also developed a communication plan to coordinate disaster relief efforts as needed,” said Choate. “This plan includes the utilization of an online emergency notification system we developed, as well as the purchase of satellite telephones for use in the event cell phone communication is compromised during a disaster.”

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The Citizen Potawatomi Nation, who had 44 tribal members report damaged homes in last year’s storms, has increased efforts that include the installation of at least nine warning sirens within their tribal jurisdiction.

One of the largest increases in emergency readiness is the effort to secure shelters and safe rooms for tribal citizens. The Chickasaw’s storm shelter program began in 2003 for tribal citizens within the Nation’s jurisdiction. In 2006 the program expanded to tribal members living anywhere in the United States. So far more than 3,000 have been built, Choate said.

Several Oklahoma tribes have recently been awarded grants from the American Red Cross to build shelters. This includes the Caddo Nation, which received $520,000 for 208 shelters; the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, who received funds for 92 shelters, and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, who received funds for 80 shelters.

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“The funds from the Red Cross will help us and our members install storm shelters and safe rooms in their residences,” said Tim Zientek, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s director of safety and housekeeping. “The 2013 storms showed just how vital these rooms are for saving lives, and with the Red Cross’ help, that is what they’ll be doing if the worst happens.”

Non-tribal members are also encouraged to apply for shelter, said Polly Edwards, the Caddo Nation emergency management and environmental director, who knew Begay. And, she said, no one will be left out in the wind. If the tribe runs out of available shelters, there are other programs out there offering refuge from the storm.

 “If we cannot assist them, we will try to find someone who can,” Edwards said.