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Lives were lost, property destroyed and neighborhoods razed in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area by a series of deadly tornadoes May 18-20, 2013. Immediately after the storms dissipated, the frantic rescue efforts began, and shortly thereafter, a community recovery was in full swing.
After contacting her family in Norman, Okla., Sherry Johnson, SPHR, field services director of the Southwest Central Region for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), sent an e-mail to Oklahoma’s SHRM council director and director-elect and to the presidents of the three chapters in closest proximity to the tornadoes: Norman, Oklahoma City and Shawnee.
The president of the Shawnee chapter was assisting people affected by a twister that tore through a local mobile-home park May 19 when the EF5 tornado devastated nearby Moore on May 20.
“It was a sickening feeling watching it all unfold; but once you got over the initial shock of it, and the first responders had done what they could, we jumped into action,” said Michael Shaw, vice president of Andreini & Company of Oklahoma, a Shawnee-based commercial insurance broker, and president of the Central Oklahoma Human Resource Association (the SHRM chapter based in Shawnee). “The first thing I did was call the HR people at all the companies I represent and ask if they had any employees affected and what could I do to help. Once we knew we were safe, our first response was to go help others.”
Shaw e-mailed chapter members from Norman and Moore to find out what kind of aid was needed. Then he began coordinating with local churches that were serving displaced residents, companies within the SHRM chapter and disaster-relief organizations in the area.
“I got in touch with companies in the area that then contacted all of their vendors to see if they could provide the types of things the Red Cross and other relief organizations needed,” he explained. “The ripple effect we can have is amazing.”
After Shaw learned from the American Red Cross what people actually needed—rakes, shovels, thick work gloves—the chapter donated $1,000 to buy shovels from a local company that would sell them at cost.
“That’s HR, right? Organizing and mobilizing resources,” Shaw noted with pride. “Who better than HR people to communicate with companies to organize donations of supplies or mobilize volunteers?”
The coordination between our SHRM chapter and the relief organizations like the Red Cross and the United Way worked out really well, he added.
It was more difficult in 1999, when a similarly destructive tornado passed over nearly the same route.
Shaw said the chapters didn’t come together quite as well that year “because we didn’t have the technology to communicate as quickly. We didn’t have Facebook or smartphones. Now, I can send out an e-mail to the state council president, and he can pass that along throughout the whole network.”
Admitting he hadn’t considered the power of the SHRM chapter network until last week, Shaw said: “SHRM chapters are such a powerful communication mechanism. We, in HR and SHRM, can be a beacon to communicate the needs of the community and then work with the organizations that can help us meet those needs.”
Norman and Oklahoma City
Diana Wall, PHR, president of the Sooner Human Resource Society, based in Norman, reached out to her chapter members, who mostly reported they were fine. Jim Beyer, SPHR, human resources director for the Norman Regional Health System (NRHS), took the opportunity to ask for assistance. Norman Regional owns and operates Moore Hospital, which took a direct hit from the tornado.
Anyone wishing to donate money to NRHS employees who were affected by the disaster may do so here.
J. Michelle Pollack, PHR, chapter president of the Oklahoma City Human Resources Society, informed her members that the Central Oklahoma Workforce Investment Board announced that a National Emergency Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor will provide aid to those who have been displaced from their home or workplace.
And Jeff Owens, PHR, director of the Oklahoma Human Resource State Council, challenged each of the state’s 12 chapters to make a cash donation. Owens said the state council will match chapter donations dollar for dollar, up to $1,500.
All donations will go to the American Red Cross.
Dealing with Employee Loss
Have you ever considered what you would do if tragedy struck your place of business? What about when a co-worker comes to you after losing her home and all of her possessions?
Wendy Hutton, PHR, payroll and hiring specialist at EMSA, an Oklahoma City-based emergency care provider, went through this devastating experience.
“We had about seven employees that lost everything,” she recalled. One of them happened to be a close friend. “She lost her house. She stood in my office crying, asking me what to do, and I didn’t know what to tell her. I stood there for a second, and then I grabbed her and hugged her and cried with her for a few minutes. It was heartbreaking.”
Then Hutton started planning next steps. She advised her friend to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to begin the claims process. FEMA employees directed her to several other organizations. Another co-worker was in charge of gathering donations for employees affected by the disaster; so Hutton made a list of items that her friend and her family needed. “Calmly and with compassion we went item by item, at her pace, trying to get her the help she needed,” she said.
Three of Bryan Timsah’s co-workers lost their homes. Timsah, PHR, is an HR manager for home builder Home Creations, based in Moore.
“We’re working with them to get them back on their feet,” he said. “The first thing we’ve done is provide paid leave to deal with the loss. Time to focus on what’s happened and not worry about their paycheck is vital.” Home Creations is coordinating with local nonprofits for assistance and setting up an internal financial contribution fund, he said.
EMSA gave all employees who suffered a total loss a cash donation to help them rebuild, said Hutton. “Our company is collecting donations of clothing, cash, toiletries, toys, etc., which are being held in the HR department. Our employees know that we care and love them and will do all that is in our power to provide and help get them back on their feet.”
Acute and post-traumatic stress disorders are something else to be mindful of. The stress response during an event like a tornado is initially acute, but for some, post-trauma stress may last for days or weeks—or lie dormant for months or longer.
“Once they get back on their feet and the shock wears off, and the enormity of the situation really sets in, they will need to talk, and I think that is when we in HR can do our best,” Hutton observed. “The key to the HR role is listening. They want to talk, to tell their story, to cry, to laugh, to just let it out.”
Employers need to make sure that HR professionals are being cared for, too. “Not a day goes by that I am not in tears at some point thinking about this disaster,” said Hutton. “It has personally affected me, emotionally, more than I could have ever imagined.”
The U.S. Small Business Administration’s recovery center was scheduled to open May 24, 2013, at the Moore Norman Technology Center’s South Penn Campus.
Oklahoma Small Business Development Center Director Bill Carter said counselors will be on hand to help business owners overcome the effects of the tornado.
He said an appointment isn’t necessary and all services are free.
Another federal disaster-recovery center, at the Little Axe Elementary School in Norman at 2000 168th Ave. NE, opened May 28.
The center is a one-stop shop where people may get information about state, federal or other disaster assistance. Specialists from FEMA, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, and the U.S. Small Business Administration are available to answer questions.
In Moore, Shawnee, Carney and Luther four short-term registration intake centers are helping people register with FEMA.
Those locations are:
Anyone in need can apply for state and federal assistance online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call 800-621-3362, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. You must register with FEMA to be considered for federal aid, even if you have registered with another disaster-relief organization, such as the American Red Cross, or a local community or church organization.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
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