The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 22, 2013

Honigsberg: After '99 tornadoes, project to register county storm shelters began

By Cass Rains, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — It was a storm so very similar to the May 20 EF-5 tornado that struck Moore that inspired Mike Honigsberg, certified director of Enid/ Garfield County Emergency Management, to begin a storm shelter registration program.

“We started our program in either the fall of 1999 or the spring of 2000, after the May 3 (1999) deal down in Moore,” he said. “I got a phone call one day from Paulene Arens and she asked me, she said, ‘Mike, if I’m down in my storm cellar and can’t get out, how are you going to know I’m down there?’ That made sense to me.”

Honigsberg said after that call, he spoke with his webmaster about making a database for storm shelters in the county.

“We called it Pauline’s Project for many, many years,” he said. “This turned out to be a great one, too, because we have a lot of people on that system.”

Honigsberg estimated early last week there were about 3,000 storm shelters in the county registered with his office.

“This is a volunteer program,” he said. “You don’t have to register if you don’t want to. It’s strictly volunteer.”

In the wake of two deadly storms in May, Honigsberg said he’s added about 250 more shelters to the list.

Register a storm shelter or safe place in Garfield County

“We’re doing this to provide our search-and-rescue personnel in Garfield County with any information they would need in their respective area, on who has a shelter and who doesn’t,” he said.

However, the list isn’t just for storm shelters. Residents also can register their homes with the area they shelter in during severe weather.

“I was asked about three years ago at a speaking engagement, what about those people without a shelter,” Honigsberg said. “That made a lot of sense too, so we expanded our program here.”

He said those without a storm shelter should seek the centermost part of their home, at the lowest level possible, to take shelter.

“If we have an idea where people are at a particular residence, it saves a boatload of digging time, if it came right down to it,” he said. “So far, thank God, we haven’t had to deal with that.

“It’s been a really neat thing and it gives people piece of mind.”

If a deadly tornado were to hit Garfield County and destroy homes, Honigsberg said the storm shelter list would be provided to search-and-rescue personnel, as well as police and fire departments in that area.

“I’ll email the list to the fire command and police department,” he said. “For any other departments coming in, I will provide them a list, or that file if they have an Internet-capable computer in their truck. I can send out that list to a lot of different response agencies in a short period of time.”

Shelters are registered using a form, available in paper and online; however, Honigsberg said he prefers the online registration.

He said having a location to begin a search can be critical to the success of search-and-rescue efforts.

In the hours following the May 20 tornado that struck Moore, search-and-rescue personnel pulled at least 100 people from the rubble left by the storm.

“You’ve seen the debris. There is a lot of digging we have to do,” Honigsberg said. “If we have an idea where you are, we can go to that area of the house.”

He also said knowing your neighbors, and them knowing of your shelter or safe place inside your home, also is crucial.

“Your relationship with your neighbors needs to be good, too, because they may be the ones getting you out.”

As well as maintaining a list for Garfield County, Honigsberg allows surrounding county emergency management offices to use his website to register shelters. Shelter registries for Major, Grant, Kingfisher, Logan, Alfalfa and Blaine counties are hosted on the site.

“I started that three or four years ago,” he said. “Other counties didn’t have the program, so I offered to them. If they wanted to start their own until they could afford to do it themselves, I could put a database on our site for them.”

Honigsberg said he doesn’t access the information, which is controlled by a username and password system, so he doesn’t know how many shelters are registered in other counties.

“I host it for them, and if they ever decide they want to get their own website, it’s not a problem, we’ll just transfer it over to them,” he said. “If any other county or city wants to join, I’m open to it.”

Honigsberg said the information provided for the registry is kept private and not shared with anyone outside of search-and-rescue personnel in an emergency.