By early evening on May 3, weather watchers had been monitoring the Oklahoma sky for hours with radar in storm centers and from helicopters. Like a scene out of the movie "Twister," one of the forecasters in a helicopter following the forming tornadoes reported what he saw to Oklahoma City weather centers - there was one tornado that was different. It was an F5, the most devastating seen so far. There never had been an F5-caliber tornado recorded in the state, but this one was speeding straight toward the middle of Oklahoma City, cutting a path of destruction at least a half mile wide. The helicopter weatherman sent a frantic message to anyone who was listening: "Take cover immediately! Get underground. There's no way you will survive this above ground if it comes your way."
Although forecasters were able to warn Oklahomans several minutes before the disaster, the 51 tornadoes that hit the state that night did so with a powerful force the state had never seen. They ripped through 18 counties, killed 44 people, injured 800 and left nearly 9,000 homeless. The giant twister, which later was classified as an F5 but bordered on the unheard of F6, stayed on the ground in Oklahoma City for four terrifying hours and produced record-breaking winds that reached 318 miles per hour (mph).
The tornadoes destroyed everything in their paths - trees, homes, automobiles, cities and human life. The winds were strong enough to wrap cars around light poles, suck the bark off of trees and blow three-week-old Asheton Darnell out of his mother's arms as his family took shelter in a closet.
The tornadoes' aftermath left the state battered and bruised, but not helpless. Another disaster four years earlier - the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that left 168 people dead - had forced Oklahoma City to learn to plan for the worst. The entire state, with the help of federal agencies and the solid waste industry, responded by picking up the pieces and rebuilding homes, neighborhoods and lives.
Mobilization Tom Logsdon, assistant chief of engineering and construction for the Tulsa District of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Washington, D.C., was watching "Noah's Ark" on television at his Tulsa, Okla., home that night. When a weather alert interrupted the program with news that a massive tornado had hit Oklahoma City and was moving toward Tulsa, he immediately called the district's Emergency Operations Center, which already had been activated. By 1 a.m. on May 4, that storm had cleared. Logsdon headed for ground zero, Oklahoma City, to meet with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Washington, D.C., and state officials. Even in the dark, he could see debris everywhere. "Cars and trucks were totally demolished, some wrapped around trees, others standing on end in the middle of where homes used to be," he says. "I knew right away the road to recovery would be a long one."
By 3 a.m., Logsdon had organized the onsite Emergency Support Function 3 (ESF-3), responsible for debris removal and utilities. Thirty federal, state and local agencies, including the Corps, set up their emergency operations centers in the state capitol complex near downtown Oklahoma City. By daylight, survey crews, equipped with maps of the entire disaster area, were on the ground identifying the damage. By the time the presidential declaration came, the Corps was preparing for water distribution, power analysis, and debris removal and disposal with recruits from all over the country specializing in quality assurance, administration, public affairs and other functions.
Following a presidentially declared disaster, jurisdictions have 72 hours to formalize an emergency-services agreement to submit to the government in order to receive 100 percent federal funding. This agreement includes a damage assessment, what it will take to clean it up and the estimated cost.
To get debris removal underway as quickly as possible, Pam Chronister, Tulsa district's chief of the civil contracts branch of USACE, coordinated with the Mobile, Ala., district to tap into a pre-arranged Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract reserved for emergency situations. The Mobile District already had a multi-year, multi-state contract in place with DRC Inc., a Mobile-based company specializing in debris removal worldwide.
"Mobile has had a few natural disasters where they've needed quick response, so they had the foresight in August of 1997 to go out for competitive bids," says Judy Marsicano, USACE public relations specialist. "All companies that were interested in debris removal work put in their bids, and in June 1998, we narrowed it down to seven companies."
DRC won the bid and was brought in to handle debris removal nationwide should anyone in the Corps need it. "We already had the contract in place, we just had to extend it to Oklahoma," Chronister says.
Chronister says the city saved at least 10 to 14 days because it didn't have to go out for emergency bids.
DRC mobilized its efforts within 24 hours after the storms, according to Robert Isakson, company managing director. To ensure that local communities benefited economically from the cleanup work, the Corps encouraged DRC to use local trucks, equipment and manpower to the fullest extent possible. DRC hired about 30 local crews, including solid waste companies such as Oklahoma City-based All American Waste. Subcontractors performed the cleanup, hauling and dumping, while DRC sorted, recycled and reduced the debris.
Some Oklahoma communities decided to hire private contractors to do their cleanup. For example, Midwest City contracted with Waste Management of Oklahoma. Del City, the Oklahoma City suburb visited by President Clinton, hired Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) to clean up its debris.
Debris removal within the 11 Oklahoma counties originally declared eligible for federal disaster assistance began with municipal streets and public property. Later, the 72-hour deadline was extended by 30 days to allow local jurisdictions flexibility in planning their debris removal work schedules.
The initial estimate of the debris to be picked up was conservative - approximately 500,000 cubic yards on public property. In one week alone, the USACE removed 305,365 cubic yards of material. Eventually, almost 700 truckloads of debris were removed from the five hardest-hit cities. Logsdon estimates that 1.6 million cubic yards of debris was collected, or enough to fill a football field - five stories high. The tornadoes left behind enough debris to fill 20,000 garbage trucks, according to federal officials.
The next question was what to do with it. According to Marsicano, the Corps worked with both state and federal branches of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., to identify a centrally located 40-acre plot of land to use as a debris processing site. Located near a commercial landfill, this place became the staging area for the hazardous waste, recyclables and biodegradable materials separation. Corps members sorted the debris into four piles: recyclables, nonrecyclables, compost and hazardous waste. With 12 landfills in the Oklahoma City area, capacity was sufficient.
But not all debris was landfilled. Logsdon says that every 1 million cubic yards of debris reduces a landfill's life by five years. So, the Corps and state officials decided to recycle everything they could and process it into mulch that could be re-used.
"That's going to be a wave of the future," Logsdon says. "In the past it's been put directly into landfills or reduced by burning. We may have so much we may not be able to use it all, but when it's turned into mulch, it can be used as part of the landfill cap rather than the filler."
To do this, the Corps brought in a 1,000-horsepower Diamond Z Manufacturing, Nampa, Idaho, grinder, which reduced nonrecyclables and debris to approximately 30 percent of its original bulk before taking it to a landfill. Cities that hired their own contractors also received 100 percent federal reimbursement if they recycled when practical. Items recycled included vegetative debris, rocks and bricks, wood and drywall, and vehicles. Marsicano says the Corps asked residents to separate as much of their debris as possible before putting it out 15 feet from the curb for pickup. For example, hazardous waste materials such as tires, batteries and gasoline were separated from the rest of the debris. This helped the Corps further separate the materials at the processing site later. Hazardous materials were taken to a separate landfill by the EPA.
The Cleanup One of the first actions was to clear the streets so emergency vehicles could get in. The debris cleanup began in some areas immediately after the tornadoes struck. In other areas, a week passed before the real cleanup efforts could begin. Because people were frantically trying to reach family, friends and relatives, there was an immediate overload of cellular phone operations, making it difficult for officials to contact utility companies to clear the streets.
Oklahoma City took things into its own hands. Before FEMA and the Corps arrived, Oklahoma City hauled hundreds of truckloads of debris to a landfill that it picked up with its own equipment to clear the way for emergency vehicles, says Dan Boland, Oklahoma City senior civil engineer.
"As soon as we identified exactly where the worst areas were and the limits of those areas, we immediately started cleaning up the streets so it was easier for the emergency vehicles to get around," Boland says. The police and fire departments were looking for bodies and survivors first, but areas were closed off to others because of downed power lines and to prevent confusion and congestion, which might have impeded emergency teams. "The emergency vehicles, particularly the gas and electric, hit the ground running to get the live gas and electric lines shut down so that it was safe for the rescue workers to go into the area," he says. "It was very dangerous."
Officials didn't let anyone into the worst-hit area until they had removed downed power lines and health hazards. The entire area was under marshal law for the first five days. After areas were declared safe, officials allowed homeowners to enter their mangled neighborhoods to search the rubble for their belongings. In the tornadoes' aftermath, Oklahomans found utter devastation and indescribable wreckage. Residents lucky enough to have escaped with their lives and families intact lost everything they owned.
Next, DRC and subcontractors moved in to finish clearing the right-of-ways and then, with permission from homeowners, the private property. "They'd go through and make one sweep and then come back and start another as people were continually trying to move stuff and get it out of the way," Boland says. "Some people just didn't know how to cope with this. They were living in the last home they ever expected to live in and all of a sudden there's nothing left."
In the worst-hit areas, FEMA contracted bulldozers to clear the land once residents searched the rubble for their valuables. One BFI employee said the damage was so severe, collectors could not even clean it up with roll-off containers. Even if all the trucks BFI owned were brought in, they still couldn't handle the cleanup, he said. Under one FEMA contract with Grubbs Construction Co., Brookville, Fla., debris was deposited at BFI's Oklahoma landfill. During the cleanup period, BFI didn't charge commercial or residential customers for extra collections, routes or for storm debris taken to the area landfills, even when amounts exceeded customer allowances, which were relaxed during disaster cleanup. For the first time in more years than employees could remember, BFI teams ran full Saturday shifts after the tornadoes.
Because collection companies still were making their regular trash pickups, the Corps asked homeowners not to mix their household trash with their debris. Boland says the level of destruction made the cleanup process time-consuming and difficult. "You can look at all the pictures you want to, [but] you just can't imagine the destruction until you see it," he says.
All American Waste of Oklahoma City was involved as a subcontractor, according to general manager Hunter Carruthers. The company cleared the right-of-way areas, hauled debris and maintained its regular roll-off business outside the ground zero area. During the first four days of cleanup, All American hauled more than 18,000 cubic yards of material to the USACE's processing site. "We had at least six trucks involved every day and some days, we had 10 to 13 involved in the cleanup efforts," Carruthers says. "Early on, we started supplying normal trash service to command centers."
One command center, the First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, served 5,000 meals a day to people left homeless by the storm. All American and others volunteered their services to the shelter. According to Carruthers, a few days after the tornado hit, collection trucks came in from all over the country to help with the cleanup. To ensure everything was done correctly and safely, the Corps brought 47 quality assurance personnel to check whether equipment was safe and environmental concerns were met.
Coping and Recovery The storms hit Mulhall, a small town 50 miles north of Oklahoma City, hard. Destruction there was widespread; every single house and business in town either was destroyed or heavily damaged. Although almost 95 percent of the 200-resident town was lost, people took little time to grieve. When the Corps arrived to begin cleaning the debris from the right-of-ways, Mulhall residents had organized themselves into teams, each with a responsibility. They used the town's own equipment to clear debris from private property, moving it to the streets so that the Corps could pick it up.
"We're really proud of them because they got out and got all of their private property cleaned off," USACE's Marsicano says. "They had everything moved to the right-of-way by the time we got there."
Mulhall Mayor John Pangburn says the town set an example for other hard-hit areas. Residents were anxious to start rebuilding because getting rid of all the debris was the first step in the healing process, he says.
Ninety-two Corps volunteers from across the country helped the victims by removing and disposing of debris from damaged homes and businesses. Volunteers collected items they thought residents might want back before they ended up in a landfill. Corps employees Lori Thomas and Penni Walker, both from the Tulsa, Okla., district, say they picked up a mud-caked photo album, a torn high school diploma, a child's soiled teddy bear and a baseball catcher's mitt.
"Our first order of business was to clear the debris so people could get in and out of their streets," Walker says. "But when we saw this kind of stuff ending up at the processing site, we thought that there was something more that we could do so we jumped in to retrieve as many momentos as we could." The memorabilia collected was turned in to volunteer agencies that scanned photos of them on to a website with hopes of returning them to their owners.
Lessons Learned For the second time in four years, federal agencies came to the aid of Oklahomans. The bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, was the last disaster that brought FEMA and Corps personnel to the area. And, ironically, that disaster may have reduced the casualties and injuries caused by the tornadoes because this time around, Oklahoma City was prepared.
Logsdon says most cities don't have disaster plans, but Oklahoma City does. "Oklahoma City is very sophisticated in its development and in being ready to meet disasters," he explains. "The state of Oklahoma has an active emergency management system, and it runs tests with its various cities."
Oklahoma's fire and police departments, medical resources and National Guard are a part of its emergency plan. Immediately after the tornadoes struck, Oklahoma City set up an emergency operations center in a church gymnasium close to the affected area. The center was equipped with phone lines and coordinators from the fire and police departments, as well as a city attorney and public works coordinator.
According to Logsdon, the 1995 bombing convinced Oklahoma City to implement an effective emergency plan. This decision helped Oklahoma react to the tornadoes quickly. "All of the organizations and response teams that were put into effect (during the bombing) still were here," he says. "Some of the people just switched back on and went right to the relief effort."
Oklahoma's Boland agrees. "We were geared up to handle these types of situations because of the Murrah building bombing," he explains. Boland says you can't compare two obviously different disasters, but the same emergency structure was used to respond to both of them. And he says lessons learned four years ago were applied to the recent disaster. For example, Oklahoma officials have had emergency training, know what to do and what equipment will be needed for certain emergency situations. They also have ready contacts with different services and businesses that can provide necessary supplies in a disaster. Such plans weren't in place in 1995.
"Oklahoma responded very, very well, and the people were exceptional at taking care of people and meeting immediate needs," Logsdon says. "We're still working on the long-term recovery needs."
Because it sits smack in the middle of "Tornado Alley," Oklahoma City has a highly advanced Nexrad radar storm warning system. The National Weather Service issued the first tornado watch around 4:30 p.m. on May 3, almost a half hour before the first tornado touched down. Because of the early warnings, hundreds of deaths may have been prevented. But it still will take the state six months to a year to clean up the mess, and even longer to rebuild its residents' lives.
Tom Logsdon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Washington, D.C., assistant chief of engineering and construction and Emergency Support Function 3 coordinator, offers advice on designing disaster plans and tips on disaster cleanup efforts.
* Hazard analysis and safety come first. First, send a crew to survey the area and locate all of the potential health hazards and dangerous equipment. It's important to find, and not touch, any type of power line on the ground because it may be energized, Logsdon says. Another danger of disaster cleanup is gas meters and open gas lines. Be aware of where all of the gas meters are, and put pin flags by each of them. Most utility companies have a map of where gas meter valves are located, he says. It is critical that the local utilities, especially gas and electric, look at what you're doing and where.
* Be aware of your surroundings and nearby structures before you enter a situation. Be careful where you step and watch out for nails and other hazards. According to Hunter Carruthers, All American Waste general manager, most of the initial cleanup injuries in Oklahoma City were a result of collectors and haulers roaming through the rubble and stepping on nails. Logsdon recommends that you don't enter a structure before you know it is safe. "You want to make sure that when you move debris, it won't cause something else to fall in or collapse," he explains. Most fire departments or rescue teams are trained to analyze structures in disaster situations.
* Wear protective clothing. The USACE requires all its employees and contractors to wear hard-toed safety shoes, hard hats and eye protection. If you're going to be handling debris, you also need thick gloves, Logsdon says. "In the initial phases of a disaster when you're trying to open up the streets and get the emergency and recovery vehicles in, we require an orange vest," he says. "Bright-colored vests reflect light so that drivers can see you at night, which often is the prime time disasters occur."
* Identify hazards before disaster. Logsdon suggests starting an information system to identify where hazardous materials are located. You should find them and plot them on a map for your county or city, he says. An electronic database allows you to do a survey of the blocks and areas to find potential and actual dangers, besides the danger caused by a disaster. It also is a good idea for households to know where hazardous materials, such as aerosol cans, are kept.
* Include major resources such as local businesses and supply sources as a part of your disaster plan. Know who your resources are, and who can help you in a disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Washington, D.C., and USACE are energized automatically by the government, but your city should make disaster contracts with local utilities, military, collectors and haulers, and businesses that can provide critical supplies and services.
* Design an emergency plan and practice it. Oklahoma City was able to respond well to the disaster and help surrounding cities in the process because it had practiced its emergency plan beforehand. "You'd be surprised at how well things work on paper, but when you get out and start exercising it, something you thought was a good idea may have problems," Logsdon says.
According to the WorldWatch Institute, Washington, D.C., weather-related damage worldwide totaled $92 billion in 1998, up 53 percent from the previous record of $60 billion in 1996. Natural disasters have cost the United States alone more than $500 billion in the past 20 years, according to a 1999 report, "Disasters by Design," funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Arlington, Va.
In the past two decades, U.S. tornadoes and floods have done $44 billion in damage. Hurricanes have caused $62 billion in damage, and droughts have accounted for $75 billion.
Since 1980, there have been 40 weather catastrophes that cost a billion dollars or more. Hurricane Andrew, the costliest weather disaster yet, tallied $27 billion in 1992, and the Midwest floods of 1993 cost $21 billion. Last year, six weather disasters cost this country more than $1 billion - more than any other year on record. The United States now averages nearly four major weather disasters a year - five times more than in the 1980s.
But is this increased weather damage a consequence of poor human planning or simply due to uncontrollable weather patterns?
Some scientists say that humans have a very short-sighted and narrow view of our relationship with the environment, and that we bring disaster expenses upon ourselves by choosing to live in risky areas, such as near coastlines and in "Tornado Alley." The NSF disaster study states, "Human beings, not nature, are the cause of the disaster losses, which stem from choices about where and how human development will proceed. Research has shown that people typically are unaware of all the risks and choices they face. They plan only for the immediate future, overestimate their ability to cope when disaster strikes and rely heavily on emergency relief."
In 1997, there were 600 weather-related deaths, 60 more than in 1996, according to the National Weather Service (NWS), Washington, D.C. While deaths and injuries from hurricanes have been reduced in the United States over the past decade, tornado deaths have remained constant. The 1,148 tornadoes that touched down in 1997 caused 67 fatalities and 1,033 injuries, up 42 deaths from 1996 but below the 30-year average of 69 annual tornado deaths. Casualties from floods, which rank No. 1 in terms of weather deaths and property damage, have not declined. And 50 percent of Americans now live within 50 miles of a coastline, a high-risk weather area.
But other scientists counter that the country is caught in a bad weather cycle, attributed to the La Nina and El Nino effects. Some say that La Nina influenced the monster storm that hit Oklahoma, Kansas and Tennessee in May. La Nina pushes cold jet stream winds into warm Gulf of Mexico air right above the central states, creating more storms and increasing the chance of tornadoes, says Steve Byrd, science officer for the NWS in Omaha, Neb. Almost 1,000 tornadoes are recorded each year in the United States, which is the world's biggest tornado hot spot because of geography and weather patterns.
Is bad weather getting worse or more frequent? It may just be that population increases and better reporting techniques make it appear that way. The average number of major weather disasters has increased over the past two decades. But researchers say when it comes to long-term climate changes, there's little data and a lot of speculation.
What started out as an interoffice e-mail at Vermeer Manufacturing Co., Pella, Iowa, escalated into a two-day volunteer aid effort for victims of the Oklahoma City tornadoes.
"Iowa's been helped a lot in times of tragedy," says Tony Gray, environmental division plant assembler for Vermeer. "We just felt like we needed to help our neighbors in return."
Gray, who had traveled to Oklahoma just after the May 3 storms, was moved by the enormous need for help. When he returned to Iowa, he rallied fellow workers in the company's Environmental Division to make another trip down with him.
He and more than 70 volunteers traveled 600 miles through the night to Oklahoma to help in the cleanup effort.
Armed with support from upper management, a brush chipper, a stump cutter and a tub grinder, the crew organized into groups of 15 and went to work in different areas.
One group ground stumps and cut tree limbs in an area of Newcastle, Okla., where a farming and ranching family lived. The parents and three sons had built homes and buildings on 10 acres, all of which were destroyed. Others went to help a cattle buyer and his family who had lost their home and cattle barn.
Debris was ground with a Vermeer TG-400AL tub grinder. Because the terrain was comprised of a fine, sandy loam, the mulch output from the grinder was used as erosion control. After grinding debris and clearing brush and logs from the area, stumps were ground with an SC505 stump cutter, a self-propelled model that was on tracks, not mounted on rubber tires, which could be damaged easily.
During the two-day trip, the crew ground more than 175 stumps and chipped more than 140 tons of wood.