Refuge from the Storm: Local resources in the event of natural disasters

Story and photos by Jeffrey Anderson

It would be accurate to say that living in Stillwater, or anywhere in Oklahoma for that matter, forces a person to become familiar with various forms of extreme weather and related emergencies. There is a reason that we are all living in Tornado Alley, to say nothing of the various other weather disasters that can happen here. In Stillwater alone, we can get tornados, floods, grass fires, heavy snow and ice, and damaging thunderstorms. Now, while everyone who has lived for more than a month in Oklahoma is educated on what to do in the event of common extreme weather scenarios, it is not as clear what public agencies exist to help people during and after the weather event. There is also a lack of public shelters for these scenarios. For Stillwater residents, there are standard emergency services, such as medical responders, firefighters, and more. In the event of extreme weather or similar emergencies, there is the Stillwater Emergency Management Agency, or SEMA.

SEMA is based in the Stillwater Police Department located at 701 S. Lewis St., one block south of East 6th Avenue. They can also be reached at (405) 372-7484, or via their social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter @StwSEMA. The primary role of this agency is disaster prevention and response, by making residents aware of what needs to be done to prepare for a disaster and what threats can realistically affect Stillwater. Their page on the city’s official website, www.stillwater.org, has resources for extreme weather preparation, how they communicate with us, other groups that can help prepare for or respond to a disaster, and more. This information is also available directly from members of SEMA and the police at the station upon request. 

When there is a disaster, SEMA coordinates emergency services from their Situation Room in the police department to direct them wherever they are needed. They also issue warnings about incoming weather alerts via their social media and through a subscription service called ‘Be Informed, Stillwater.’ SEMA is currently headed by Director Rob Hill, who has served with SEMA since 2003 and provided much of the information in this article. 

Situation Room located at the Stillwater Police Department
SEMA Director Rob Hill

Payne County Emergency Management Agency is another resource in the event that you cannot reach SEMA or are in an area where they cannot reach you. PCEMA has a small page on the Payne County government website and can be reached at (405) 533-6875. PCEMA also has social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They perform the same functions as SEMA, but for the entire county. They also pass on resources to various city-scale agencies when the need arises. They work with the state EMA, and the system continues from there to the federal level. Then there is the Payne County Animal Response Team, which is essentially a Red Cross for animals in emergency situations. It should be noted that they are deployed like many emergency response agencies, in answer to specific orders from the National Incident Management System, so you cannot directly contact them in an emergency scenario. They must be sent out first and will eventually respond to you. The best thing you can do is to contact SEMA about the nature of your animal-related emergency, and they will alert PCART.

Admittedly, these agencies are only capable of doing so much. Their primary roles are preparation for emergencies and managing the aftermath. For example, there are no city-run public storm shelters anywhere in Stillwater. When asked, Director Hill said that the reasons there were no such shelters were cost and the logistics of these shelters. There is no room in the city budget for such an expense and the federal government is unwilling to provide funds for the shelters. The logistics of these shelters include but are not limited to; who would run them, how large would the shelter need to be, who would be allowed in, and how these shelters would be operated outside of extreme weather events. It would be a logistics nightmare, in the absolute worst sense. A large amount of responsibility for minimizing disaster damages falls on the individual’s shoulders.

Director Hill has offered advice about what residents should do to be more prepared for extreme weather situations. Firstly, every resident needs to have multiple methods of being informed whenever extreme weather events occur. One method he mentioned would be purchasing a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio for alerts. It can be battery operated or plugged into an outlet and can be adjusted so that you only receive alerts that are relevant to you. Another method is the ‘Be Informed Stillwater’ notification service. You can customize what alerts you receive and how making it very convenient for rating how dangerous a weather event is for you. For example, you can set notifications so that a flash flood warning goes to your email, but a tornado watch results in you receiving a phone call. For those interested in taking a greater role in emergency preparedness for their community, they can work with the Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT. Further information for this group, like the others, is available at the Stillwater Police Department. Above everything else, Director Hill said that SEMA does not want the residents of Stillwater to be afraid whenever an emergency like this occurs. So long as we act with caution and use the resources available, we can move beyond the fear that these disasters inevitably bring.