The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 9, 2013

A dark cloud's silver lining

Woodward coming back after deadly 2012 storm

By Cass Rains, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

WOODWARD, Okla. — Nearly a year after a tornado that caused millions in damage and took the lives of six people ripped through this city, the community still is recovering.

The storm struck shortly after midnight April 15, 2012, killing six and injuring 36 people. The storm impacted 224 homes and businesses in Woodward County. Of those, 73 were destroyed, 22 sustained major damage and 21 had minor damage.

Woodward City Manager Alan Riffel said recovery is ongoing.

“There are a lot of things under way,” he said. “Homes have been rebuilt. We are seeing a lot of those areas that were hit the hardest being built back at this point.”

While the process of repairing, and rebuilding in some cases, has been difficult, there have been improvements made following the wake of the storm’s damage.

“The movie theater was damaged heavily,” Riffel said. “We had a deal in place for a new theater that was to be built there, and it accelerated that process.

“That now has been opened since September. It’s active and very successful. It went from a two-screen theater to a six-screen multiplex.”

Improvements also are being made at Hideaway Trailer Park, where four of the victims of the storm died.

“That was taken over by a new ownership group. That has been upgraded and been rebuilt,” Riffel said. “There are a lot of improvements that have come from this process as well.”

He said if something came back better than it was before, that was a “positive step.”

 With the help of a $350,000 donation from Apache Corp., an independent oil and gas and exploration company, Woodward has been able to upgrade its storm siren warning system which includes battery backup and redundant controls.

“It was an excellent gift and very benevolent on their part,” Riffel said. “All storm sirens are in place with battery backup. We’re in the process now of handing off to neighboring communities those sirens that were salvaged from our former system to help some smaller communities in our area have warning systems.”

Riffel said the gift from Apache Corp. not only benefited Woodward but many other communities in northwest Oklahoma.

Following the storm, Riffel said Woodward was reminded of the spirit of Oklahomans by generosity that poured into the community .

“It reassured of what level of spirit is alive in Oklahoma and northwest Oklahoma in particular,” the city manager said.

It wasn’t just people, church or civic groups that donated time and money in the storm’s aftermath. Oil and energy companies donated generously as well, Riffel said.

The companies donated heavy equipment and labor to help with cleanup efforts, Riffel said, saving victims time and countless dollars.

“It was a generous performance by those companies,” he said. “It offset a lot of the cost to victims and a lot of the costs to the community.”

Riffel said the generosity also poured in from out of state. When Red Cross arrived to provide relief efforts, they commented this was the only disaster response effort that was fully funded without bringing in other funds.

A local group of relief agencies and community volunteers formed to create Recovery Woodward, to help coordinate relief efforts and create caseworker system to aid victims

The group raised money to help individuals on a case by case basis by working with several area relief organizations.

“Over $600,000 was raised to help victims replace what wasn’t covered by insurance,” Riffel said. “We learned there is a lot of heart. It was very reassuring of what the spirit of people and the generosity of people is at a time when it is very critical.”

Riffel said even his peers offered any help they could following the tornado.

“City managers across the state called and asked, ‘What we can do to help,’’” he said. “Enid is a prime example.”

Riffel said Enid City Manager Eric Benson called the morning of the storm, offering to help.

“Two days later I was returning his call for a couple of grappling trucks we needed to help clear some lots,” he said. “He offered to send operators along with those trucks. Eric Benson was the first one to be on my phone after the storm.”

Riffel said other cities with similar experiences offered tips from lessons they’d learned in their own storms. He said city officials from Joplin, Mo., shared their tornado experience with key city of Woodward staff in a conference call following the storm.

“They spent a couple of hours on the phone with us and helping us understand what their lessons were in their major tornado,” he said. “The lesson, the points they shared with us were very helpful.”

He said Woodward received outreach from all levels following the tornado.

“We had a lot of people coming in saying, ‘We will cook for whoever wants to come eat. We’ll be cooking here, and we’ll being going into the neighborhoods,’” Riffel said. “We had groups say we will go into fields where debris is scattered and go and pick it up and bag it.

“It’s quite remarkable.”