Responding to Disaster: A NewPublicHealth Q&A with Oklahoma’s Gary Cox

Jun 21, 2013, 2:28 PM

Gary Cox, Director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department Gary Cox, Director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department

Less than a month ago cities in Oklahoma were struck by some of the most powerful tornadoes in the state’s history, killing more than 40 people, injuring scores more and destroying thousands of homes and other structures.

As part of an ongoing series on how public health responds to disaster, NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Gary Cox, director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department.

NewPublicHealth: What roles has your health department had following the tornadoes?

Gary Cox: We do many things. For example, a lot of people are out cleaning up and come into contact with nails and other sharp objects and they get cuts and puncture wounds. We partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield and we have three mobile vans staffed those vans with nurses who go out into the affected areas and give tetanus shots and minor first aid. Mental health services can also be provided out of the vans. In fact, we put out a call for assistance and many trained professionals signed up within just a couple of days to volunteer their services to work with individuals and with families, particularly over the stress issues related to these tornados and floods. We have a very broad and deep layer of partnerships, and of course we rely on those. And what we try to do is to take a holistic type so that people in need can get a whole range of services from one location.

One important mission has been to deploy food safety inspectors out into all those areas affected to look at each one of those restaurants and to help them assess their food spoilage and food safety and work with them to get back to business if they can and as soon as they can.

We also sent inspectors to schools that were still in session. Many had their power and water out and we worked with them, too, on food services and restroom facilities. We did the same with other institutions, including day care centers and long-term care facilities.

We also worked with the medical emergency response center to assess hospital capacity. One hospital, for example, was blown away. So we’d know whether to divert calls and whether and where we needed to bring in medical volunteers to hospitals.

And we dealt with all sorts of debris to try to avoid potential rodent problems and flies and mosquitoes. We issued an emergency declaration for Oklahoma City so that FEMA could come in and begin that clearing process.

We also put out a great deal of information pertinent to the tornado aftermath to help residents, including mental health resources, food safety and the need for tetanus shots.

NPH: What are some public safety ideas being discussed around rebuilding?

Cox: There is considerable discussion about storm shelters. Some people in the area already have them and there's a state program that provides rebates for individual storm shelters, but of course the amount of money that we have in those funds is not enough. Some of the tribal entities also provide funding for storm shelters for their members, and the mayor of Oklahoma City has put together a group to look at safe shelters for schools. And I think that’s one of the issues that the communities are looking at very closely—as these schools are being rebuilt, can safe rooms be added and retrofitted for existing schools? Of course, that’s an expensive proposition and schools are pretty strapped, but I know those discussions are ongoing.

One thing being looked at in some communities is requiring storm shelters in new homes.

NPH: And as you rebuild, is there also a focus on building back better?

Cox: In Oklahoma City there's a big push to do that. We had a sales taxes passed in 2009 that we’re using to build many miles of new sidewalks, bicycle trails, walking trails, senior wellness centers and more urban transportation and things of that nature. So I can say in Oklahoma City I think that’s something that they’ll be looking at very closely. Rebuilding after a disaster creates more opportunity and I think as horrible as this whole situation is, I think you have to look for any silver lining that you can in that cloud.

NPH: People in Oklahoma are so well aware of the threat of tornadoes. This was a massive storm, but what else do you think accounted for so many deaths that might present an opportunity to prevent at least some deaths and injuries next time—in addition to more storm shelters?

Cox: I think we can always look at the situation and have lessons learned, and I know that that’s going on now, examining how this came down and the effects of it.

We have outstanding radar capabilities and the technology has improved so much. Plus all of the new stations here have tornado spotters out and they even have weather helicopters that are out scouting the area and they are really quite good at identifying risk. On one of the storm days, the weather service put out an extra precaution that it would be a really risky day. On the day of the tornado in Moore, for example, a lot of the parents went to the elementary schools early and picked up their children to get them home and into shelters.

So, the warning systems are quite good now, where you can get a 15, 20, 35-minute warning period and people do listen and pay attention. But then of course we have interstates where you have travelers and they don’t always know about the threat.

NPH: Do we need to remind travelers to take heed since they may not be as attuned to the weather where they’re traveling?

Cox: We do, and adding a weather app to your phone is another good idea—it lets you key in your zip code so you can be alerted about local weather dangers and alerts. But the May 31 tornado happened at just a terrible time. It was late in the day, and you had the rush hour traffic and a lot of people had left work early so the road were clogged with people trying to flee, and others trying to get home and still others just traveling. Massive tornadoes of the magnitude we got are just hard to survive above ground.

Bonus Link: Read a NewPublicHealth post about FEMA weather alerts that now go directly to many cell phones.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.