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Police Response to Tornado

 

On May 20, 2013 the first of four Enid, Okla. Police teams headed out to serve in neighboring Moore, Okla. after the devastation caused by an EF5 tornado. All in all, 40 officers contributed over 600 man-hours from our department. I worked nights and had slept through the initial carnage. It wasn’t until the next day that I got a chance to see the news reports; however, I was part of that first team to answer the call for assistance. The tornado had torn through Moore, killing 23 people and injuring almost 400.

The Moore Police Department sent out a statewide teletype requesting as much assistance as they could possibly get. Our department sent out the page to Enid’s own police force and eight police and fire vehicles responded. The police contingent was a mixture of SWAT, patrol and detectives. Along with hundreds of other public servants coming statewide, we were headed to Moore and couldn’t get there fast enough.

The first thing we saw after wading through the traffic was a throng of people who had just lost almost everything. They carried suitcases (probably filled with what little they had left) and walked in a fragmented line westbound. Looking in their faces, we didn’t see the heartbreak one would expect. Instead, we saw calm and absolute resolve. Their strength transformed our sympathy into empathy and helped to fuel us through our long shift. 

This wasn’t my first major tornado response experience; however, it was the worst. Tornadoes are both powerful and enigmatic. Mud is caked everywhere. Buildings several stories tall, which were not felled, were caked in the stuff. So are the interiors of vehicles, homes, streets and sidewalks. It can really hamper the emergency response. Another curiosity is how one vehicle remains in place while another beside it is thrown hundreds of yards away.    

 

Communications

We signed in with the law enforcement command post and gave them our cell phone numbers and radio designations. Our assignment was the most sought after:  criminal interdiction in a two-square-mile residential area. I asked incident command personnel about communications. We would have to use “runners” to communicate with the CP. Cell phones weren’t working and text messages were sporadic. 

Communications after a catastrophe is something with which law enforcement has always struggled. After 9/11, the government created federal emergency frequencies for this purpose, but those channels were being used for search and rescue. We didn’t have any local Moore frequencies programmed into our radios. 

We resorted to dispatching ourselves on an old frequency known as Mutual Aid. It certainly wasn’t a perfect system, but it worked for car-to-car transmissions during our imperfect situation.  If we located a victim, we would have one of the other Enid units drive to the command post to get help. 

We familiarized ourselves with the area as best we could and then started patrolling.  Occasionally, the fire guys or National Guard would ask for our help in door-to-door searches.  We weren’t assigned to do that, but we helped them until we weren’t needed anymore and then we got back to patrol. 

We dug through the debris, all the while hoping we wouldn’t find anyone. Thankfully, we didn’t.  What we did find were houses with the roofs and bedrooms completely gone, yet in one case, the kitchen and appliances completely intact. Some homes were missing a roof or their second story.  Some were completely leveled. The utter devastation of one house was sharply contrasted by the nearly pristine home next to it. Of course, the most difficult thing for all of us was finding children’s toys in the debris, an unwanted reminder of the most helpless and innocent victims. 

 

Looter Abatement

Deviating from one’s designated assignment or “going rogue” after a disaster is as common as it is detrimental to the operation. We did a relatively good job of staying on task and following our assignment, though it was difficult at times. There was one particular strip mall in the middle of our patrol zone that contained a liquor store. Its front windows were gone and its colorful glass liquid-filled wares were mere feet inside the door. 

A few people stood across the street staring at the potential booty, but we knew we had to focus on the residential areas.  Begrudgingly, we had to leave them to the possibility of looting for a while. When we came back later that evening, nothing appeared to be missing. As it turned out, several other law enforcement officers were assigned to the same area, had noticed the same situation and were routinely discouraging those few who would steal from the good people of Moore.  

The neighborhoods were packed with police cars from other jurisdictions driving slowly and silently with their overheads activated. We waved to each other solemnly as we passed, in acknowledgement that these could have just as easily been our streets.   

 

Hometown Heroes

The response of emergency services agencies in and around the City of Moore was impressive.  Within a short time, the entire operation was organized. These men and women of Moore were victims as much as any other citizen. Many of their own homes were destroyed and their belongings were lost. 

Some of those who were on duty at the time could not check on their own families for several hours. In spite of their personal needs, they stayed there, keeping their oath. It was all too easy to imagine myself in their place. There is some comfort in knowing that, God forbid, were we ever in such a position, hundreds of emergency responders are just a mere teletype away. 

Toward the end of what turned out to be a 15-hour shift, exhaustion set in, but our spirits seemed to rise. We knew the second team of Enid Police and Enid Fire were already en route to replace us. In every residential neighborhood we patrolled, we saw benevolence. There were neighbors helping neighbors and strangers helping strangers. The Red Cross and Salvation Army provided food.  

Many citizens who suddenly found themselves homeless secured stray dogs and took them to an impromptu shelter instead of tending to their own needs. Other people collected the strewn family photographs of strangers in the hopes of someday returning them to their owners. Despite the vast opportunities, criminal activity was almost non-existent. 

On the drive home the next morning, I could not have been more proud—proud of the oath keepers that I had served beside from my own department and others from surrounding jurisdictions, and of the citizens of this great state. You can’t curse Tornado Alley. This is Oklahoma.    

 

Warren Wilson is a lieutenant with a municipal police department in Oklahoma. He is a SWAT team member/leader and has been in law enforcement for over 17 years. He can be contacted at enidpd804@yahoo.com. 


Published in Law and Order, Jul 2014

Rating : 10.0


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