Emergency Plans, Survival Instincts Kick In During Okla. Tornado

By Roy Maurer May 28, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013, started like any normal day for the residents of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Tornados had passed through the area the day before, and severe-weather warnings were in effect, “but that’s nothing abnormal this time of year for around here,” said Bryan Timsah, PHR, HR manager for home builder Home Creations, based in Moore, Okla.

Tornadoes are a fact of life in the Midwest and, especially, in central Oklahoma, which lies right in Tornado Alley, where most of the nation’s tornadoes strike.

“We were all on alert and keeping our eyes on the weather,” recalled Lindsey Nichols, SPHR, director-elect of the Oklahoma Human Resource State Council.

At about 2:30 p.m., Nichols, a client services manager, and her colleagues at Nextep, an employer services organization based seven miles south of Moore, in Norman Okla., gathered in front of the windows on the north side of their office building, wide-eyed at the sight in front of them.

“It looked like a huge dark cloud, covering the whole horizon,” she told SHRM Online.

By this time, the twister’s path was forecast to pass through Moore. Seconds after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning, at 2:40 p.m., the city of Moore sounded its first siren. The tornado touched down at 2:45 p.m., staying on the ground for approximately 50 minutes over a 17-mile path, and grew to more than a mile wide at its peak. It topped the scale that measures tornado intensities, with powerful winds that exceeded 200 mph.

“When it was predicted to cut through Moore, I panicked,” said Nichols. “My daughters were at an in-home day care in Moore.” But the tornado was between Nichols and her girls. “There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t get to them without putting myself in danger.”

Timsah and his co-workers continued to monitor the storm as it approached their location. “When it touched down and the town’s sirens went off, it got pretty hectic,” he told SHRM Online. “We had to make some quick decisions—either get underground or get out of the way.”

Home Creations’ office has two storm shelters underground, which hold up to eight people each. The problem: About 30 employees work onsite. With the storm bearing down on them, Timsah and his colleagues had to decide whether to flee or shelter in place.

As television, Internet and cellphone service went dead in nearby Norman, Nichols decided she had to get her daughters. She tore out of the office, heading north on I-35, which connects Norman and Moore, not realizing the twister had plowed over a stretch of highway ahead, tossing vehicles into the air and into the center median, creating a parking lot. “No one could move,” she said. Eventually, she got off the highway and tried taking other routes north to Moore. “I was stopped on every route, either by debris, downed power lines, police barricades or horrendous backed-up traffic. No one could get into the city of Moore from the south. There was no way.”

Back in Moore, decisions had been made. Those who had decided to shelter underground battened down the hatches while Timsah and the remainder of the staff got into their vehicles and drove out of the storm’s path.

Home Creations’ site had been devastated once already by a tornado, in 1999. But this time, as the storm’s destructive force came within a quarter mile of the company, it suddenly veered eastward. “We were lucky that we didn’t sustain any damage,” Timsah said.

Nichols’ resolution came in a text message from her husband, who works north of Oklahoma City. He had successfully gotten into Moore from the north and retrieved their daughters from the day care located about half a mile from where the storm crushed Plaza Towers Elementary School, killing seven children. Thankful that her family was safe, Nichols then spent more than four hours trying to get home. “It was a very emotional day,” she remembered.

Having a Plan

A tornado can be one of the most destructive storms. Unlike a hurricane, which announces itself a few days before making landfall, a tornado may develop almost without warning, appearing within minutes and leaving little time for its victims to react. In Moore, at least 24 residents lost their lives, between 12,000 and 13,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and 33,000 people were affected. Dozens of businesses—from big-box stores and retail chain stores to mom and pop shops—were also damaged.

Forty percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster, and another 25 percent fail within one year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

And property insurance provider FM Global found that 75 percent of employees do not believe that their employer is well-prepared for a disaster.

“A staggering percentage of businesses don’t have an emergency management plan,” said Bob Boyd, president & CEO of Agility Recovery, a provider of business continuity and disaster recovery solutions for small and midsize businesses.

Planning should start with the basics, such as knowing the potential threats to your business, ensuring that communication is facilitated, having access to a backup power source and securing important data. “You can always add more bells and whistles to your plan and make it more complex later, but having the basics down and practicing those steps will put you in a better position than 90 percent of the businesses out there,” said Boyd.

Things to consider when preparing your business for a tornado include:

  • Create an emergency notification plan that reaches all employees, clients, visitors and customers in an emergency.
  • Develop a phone-redirection strategy.
  • Identify critical employees and make sure they understand what is expected of them during a disaster. For example, you may need IT staff immediately after a disaster to protect and re-establish your technology systems. If you need those employees onsite (or at a remote location), make travel, hotel and meal arrangements in advance, Agility recommends.
  • If employees will need to return to the workplace to assist in the recovery process before all services are restored, have an adequate supply of water, nonperishable food, first-aid supplies, generators, cleaning supplies, batteries, flashlights and other necessities.
  • Develop a plan to allow your payroll, benefits and HR functions to operate during or after a disaster or during any period in which access to your workplace is restricted.

“As a payroll provider, we deal with a lot of sensitive data,” Nichols said. She explained that Nextep leases space from a FEMA bunker certified to withstand up to an F5 tornado, in nearby Edmund, Okla. “We have backup servers there,” she said. “Probably eight to 10 times a day, our data is backed up to those servers. If our offices here were destroyed, our data would be secure 40 miles away. The likelihood of tornadoes hitting both places is, like, one in a million.”

Nextep also has remote work plans in place. “Our phone and Internet systems were down most of the afternoon and evening Monday, but we’re set up so that our staff can work remotely from home, and our main office line can be rerouted so we can continue to do our business and serve our clients.”

  • Update your employee contact information regularly and at the beginning of any season during which natural disasters are more likely. For those in hurricane-prone areas, that means now.
  • Put your crisis management plan in writing and distribute it to all employees.

When a tornado warning is issued or if severe weather is approaching, make sure employees:

  • Move to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor and, if possible, get under a heavy piece of furniture.
  • Stay away from windows.
  • Go to a designated shelter area, such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar or the building’s lowest level. The Moore tornado served as a stark reminder that storm shelters and safe rooms save lives. After a tornado, news accounts produce dramatic examples of survivors who lived through killer storms because the home or building they were in had an underground shelter or enhanced safe room.

After a violent storm, the worksite must be evaluated for safe re-entry. A third-party inspector may be necessary to verify safety.

Communication is critical after a disaster. After a tornado, notify all employees, vendors and stakeholders of next actions.

The senior-level HR executives at Nextep sent out a mass communication to all employees as severe weather was forecast. All department managers then communicated with their staff while the tornado was on the ground, and waited to hear back from employees, Nichols said. “We also had a management status call Monday night to assess the state of operations and make sure everyone was accounted for.”

Flexibility will have to be worked into any disaster management plan.

After dodging a disaster, Timsah is reviewing his company’s plan.

“Our plan advises not leaving the facility, but in this case, with a tornado bearing down and not enough shelter, the best option was getting out of the area,” he said. “Policies really have to be flexible when it comes to people being fearful for their lives or the lives of their loved ones. People need options in life-and-death situations.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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