Choctaw Nation responds to icy crisis
Tribal Police Chainsaw Crew, Brant, Isaac and Randy, clean debris after the storm.
Mother nature recently gave Choctaw Nation the cold shoulder in the form of a weeklong, multi-county ice storm beginning Dec. 6. Pushmataha, Choctaw, and northern McCurtain counties were hit hardest, with the rest of Southeastern Oklahoma experiencing difficulties as well.
Power outages, icy roads and damage from falling tree limbs marred the week of the winter storm. According to reports from major electric providers – OGE, PSO, Choctaw Electric and Southeastern Electric – approximately 13,500 Oklahoma residents experienced loss of power for a period of time. Some even went without electricity for the duration of the storm and several days after.
Daryl Holaday, director of Safety Management / Emergency Management, and Jeff Hansen, emergency manager for CNO, had been tracking the weather system as it moved closer to CNO’s 10.5 counties. Once certain the area was in for the winter chill, they began coordinating with other CNO departments to prepare for possible emergency response.
The process of preparing for the worst began with securing large, trailer-pulled 100-120 kW generators and placing them at strategic locations based on where weather was forecast to be worst. CNO Tribal Police, Outreach workers and employees of Choctaw Housing Authority volunteered their time and were assigned to operate the Choctaw community centers, which were used as shelters.
As the ice rolled into the area, so did calls of power outages. The Hugo and Antlers community centers opened their doors to provide shelter for those without power on Friday.
CNO Emergency Management then began coordinating with the local emergency managers in these areas, which were critical to CNO response efforts. The Red Cross also lent support in the form of cots and the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Cooking Crew began cooking, providing meals to those in need. The combined effort of these entities ensured that those who needed help got it.
By Saturday, conditions had reached full force and many were unable to leave homes. Water supply was an issue for rural area residents who relied on well water, as many were still out of power and water pumps had frozen.
In response to this fact, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management supplied pallets of bottled water to town centers and CNO workers helped to distribute the supply.
Meal delivery was coordinated to Boswell, Soper and Antlers. Pallets of water were also transported to Smithville, Bethel, Hugo and Antlers. By Sunday, all shelters were receiving food distribution.
Food and water distribution continued into the next week with Antlers and Hugo seeing the majority of those needing assistance. As emergency workers were able to travel, smaller generators began to be delivered to those with immediate medical issues requiring electricity. Chainsaw crews also began removing debris from driveways, allowing residents to leave homes to obtain food and emergency vehicles to reach residents.
“We want to make sure we can get emergency services to someone’s house,” Holaday said as he spoke about the importance of keeping driveways cleared of downed trees.
As the week went on, conditions gradually improved and power was restored to some areas, creating less of a demand for assistance.
Over the course of the event, the Antlers Choctaw community center housed anywhere from three to five people each night until Thursday, and provided almost 500 meals. The Hugo center housed from one to nine people a night and provided 423 meals, all while coordinating the pickup or delivery of 3,011 meals from the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Cooking Crew.
During the ice storm, CNO proved that the time and effort invested in emergency management planning could make a substantial difference. “When an emergency occurs, we try to give it some level of organization,” said Hansen as he described the duties of his department.
He went on to explain that in times such as this, there are usually many resources available, but without coordination, the utilization of said resources are not efficiently used and often duplicated when those involved don’t have specific instruction.
Though material aid was essential, support from CNO employees and volunteers was equally necessary. Choctaw Housing Authority, Public Safety and Outreach Services employees, and many others were crucial in staffing shelters, distributing food and water, and securing items for special needs.
Safety Specialist Shane Meshaya praised his team at the Antlers shelter for their dedication to the cause. He made note that the staff of the center had went above and beyond their job description. Meshaya feels that the staff “has been a resource for the community.” When folks needed a place to go, we were there, continued Meshaya.
He was also quick to praise the efforts of other community entities such as the Antlers First Baptist Church, the Antlers Fire Department and Cowboy Church, all of which were a hub for those seeking aid in the wake of the storm.
Community Health Representatives and nurses were on staff each day, some practically living at the center, ready and willing to help in any way they were able. Holaday, Hansen and Meshaya all praised the Antlers center for the degree to which it was prepared for such an event. Meshaya stated that the center had plenty of food ready and had “not had a shortage of anything.”
“I’d love to see all our centers look like that one,” echoed Hansen.
Not only well-equipped with supplies, Antlers also had dedicated employees such as Oma Clay and Angela James, Community Health Representatives from Rattan and Sobol. The two, along with other staff, ensured that there were always warm meals and clean facilities for people seeking refuge.
“This is what our job is all about – helping people,” stated Clay.
James, who had been without electricity since the initial frost, secured accommodations for her family, then sprang into action assisting Oma and delivering food. “I’m here to help the people,” she stated humbly.
Among those assisted by the Antlers center is Howard Harty, who was referred the to the center by the Antlers hospital. Harty was in need of an oxygen supply due to complications with his lungs. Complete Care Medical provided access to a machine that generated oxygen and allowed him to reside at the center where he could access electricity.
“They got me everything I needed,” said Harty as he praised the efforts of the CNO employees.
Steve Bellairo, a resident of Moyers, was another grateful recipient of CNO aid. Bellairo’s house burned on Dec. 10, and a friend brought him to the center, where he found a place to stay and even assistance in finding a place to live after the shelter closed its doors. “They are helping a lot and I appreciate it,” said Bellairo as he exclaimed his appreciation.
Holaday also reports of generator deliveries to those with urgent needs for electricity. McCurtain County Emergency Manager Greg Campbell made a special delivery to a paraplegic requiring power to operate essential medical equipment.
Executive Director of Public Safety John Hobbs used CNO’s emergency response vehicle, the Bearcat, delivering a generator to a man with a heart condition who was also in need of power for his medical equipment. Nine other public safety employees joined Hobbs in delivering food and supplies and even acted as a chainsaw crew during the freeze. “We are just doing our part in serving and protecting,” Hobbs stated.
While using the Bearcat to make the trek from Durant to Hugo, Hobbs and his crew also pulled several vehicles out of ditches, which had slid off the road. Hobbs remarked that this feat would not have been possible with standard vehicles. “We could get places in [the Bearcat] that other people couldn’t.”
The CNO Housing Authority was also instrumental in response efforts, coordinating resource allocation and assisting in emergency repairs. “We had a great response from a good number of our associates,” stated Housing Authority Executive Director Russell Sossamon.
Many had their own problems with power outages, property damage or endangered livestock, but they stepped up to support our tribal members, Sossamon added. “I would like to commend our staff for their response.”
As the ice thawed, the general sentiment of those responsible for the emergency effort was that procedures ran smoothly and efforts were efficient. “We know what it takes to make it through,” stated Holaday who cited other inclement weather conditions such as the Tushka tornado of 2011 and previous ice storms.
A suggestion the Emergency Management team brought to light about preparing for future occurrences was better infrastructure – fortifying critical resources such as electricity by making sure trees are trimmed away from power lines.
Holaday and Hansen both encourage strengthening the relationships between the Choctaw Nation, City and County governments, and local utilities to better prepare Choctaw communities in times of disaster. They also encourage tribal members to talk to their local utilities, and councilman if they see areas of vulnerability such as overgrown trees around power lines.
The Emergency Management team also made mention that community centers should be the contacted first in area-wide cases of emergency. A list of community centers, the addresses and phone numbers can be found here.