The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 7, 2013

Honigsberg: Response to a disaster should be fluid

By Dale Denwalt, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — In just a few seconds, Mike Honigsberg’s tornado “destroyed” a square mile of Enid.

This square mile, though, was just on a map.

The exercise was for the benefit of more than two dozen agencies and stakeholders in Garfield County –  many of whom would be mobilized in the event of a disaster.

Honigsberg, who is the emergency management certified director for both Enid and the unincorporated areas of Garfield County, created the scenario as part of a yearly “table-top” drill.

His goal was to get everyone visualizing how their organization would respond to a large disaster, and how they can best communicate.

Unfortunately, he said, the turnout at the meeting could have been better and only a few of the attendees sent back a questionnaire.

“I’ve gotten seven of those back out of the 27 that were here,” Honigsberg said. “You don’t get much input back from these things.”

He also said a lot of “key players” that should have been at the scenario meeting never showed up. That doesn’t sit well with him.

“To put this in a nice way, it’s not going to go very well at the very beginning when it comes to bringing the right officials in here, because they don’t participate,” he said.

Honigsberg commented that it’s not just a local problem, that complacency and lack of preparation happens everywhere.

“Until we take a hit and people die, not much is going to get done because that’s what’s happened in a lot of other places,” he said. “They didn’t take it very seriously until the big one hit them.”



Unchecked

Things happen a little differently in the Enid/Garfield County Emergency Management office.

Instead of creating a list of everything that needs to happen during an emergency, Honigsberg values fluidity in the people who work around him. It complements the very nature of disaster situations.

“If you write down everything, you have to follow that protocol” because of liability concerns, he said.

In his estimation, guidelines are better than plans. Following a general set of principles and guidelines allows Honigsberg and other emergency responders to alter a response depending on the nature of the event.

“You have to have latitude when you do these things. Because when you follow it to the letter, then you’re hindering response and it’s probably going to cost lives,” he said.



Variability

His thoughts on emergency planning are just as varied as the types of disaster that can occur.

There can be a tornado, but he also is concerned with wind damage, hail, flooding and other weather-related disasters.

There could be a large fire or chemical spill. Railcars could come off the tracks.

Not only that, but each disaster is different from the last, just like small-scale events.

“Fire departments have a protocol for how they’re going to respond for a house fire, or a car fire, whatever. But are any two of them exactly alike? No,” said Honigsberg. “Once you get there, what are you going to do?”

Therefore, his office has to think broadly about ways to keep the people of Garfield County safe.

“I’m a ‘what-if’ person,” he said. “You can write plans until you’re blue in the face. but once an event occurs, it’s out the window. That plan is no good because it doesn’t even apply to the parameters of the initial disaster.”



Where to go

There is no designated gathering place for people impacted by a disaster in Enid. While there are large structures in Enid that would seem like natural places for emergency personnel and refugees to congregate, the location and type of a disaster has final say.

“We don’t even know if the Event Center’s going to be there. We can’t say that,” he said.

The regional American Red Cross office tries to plan for disasters days ahead of time, like in the event of winter weather or a high probability of severe tornadic weather. For the winter storms that dropped snow and ice on Oklahoma this past week, the Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma started daily calls with offices across the region, and local volunteers made contact with their emergency management officials.

“This is done to let officials know the Red Cross is ready and to ask if they need anything from the Red Cross,” Regional Director of Communications Ken Garcia said. “Volunteers will also contact community partners we have shelter agreements with, to put them on standby should they be needed. This also happens with potential warming centers.”

It’s the job of responders like the Red Cross to know where people can go and what they should do.

“Clearly, we do our research well ahead of storms to make sure supplies and volunteers are ready,” Garcia said. “Preparedness also comes from experience. The Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters a year.”

The best way to receive instructions from Garfield County Emergency Management is to sign up for its free Nixle text message and email service, which is available at www.gcem.org.