Oklahoma’s Emergency Chief Has Weathered 36 Disasters

By: - May 21, 2013 12:00 am

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, right, walks through a mobile home park that was hard hit tornadoes, with Albert Ashwood, left, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. (AP Photo, Sue Ogrocki)

Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma’s director of emergencymanagement, was surveying last weekend’s tornado damage with Gov. Mary Fallinon Monday morning, when he told her they had to leave immediately. The weather,he said, was getting worse, and the two of them needed to get to the commandcenter.

Two hours later, a tornado with winds reaching 190mph cut a 17-mile swath through the metropolitan Oklahoma City area, levelinghundreds of homes and leaving dozens dead.

Ashwood is the longest-serving state emergencymanagement chief in the country. He has worked at the Oklahoma Department ofEmergency Management since 1988 and, after his work in the aftermath of the1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was appointed to lead it in 1997. He has served inthat role ever since, under both Democratic and Republican governors. This ishis 36th major disaster.

Oklahoma has been especiallyhard-hit in recent years when it comes to natural disasters,and experts in emergency management say Ashwood’s long experience andinnovative thinking have helped ease those recoveries.

“It makes all the difference,” said Trina Sheets,executive director of the National Emergency Management Association. “Disastervictims can be assured he understands everything that needs to be done forrecovery.”

A good emergency manager is more of a coordinatorthan a first responder, said R. David Paulison, a former administrator of theFederal Emergency Management Agency. Oklahoma’s response to the Mondaytornadoes shows the state was well-prepared, he said.

The White House approved a presidential disasterdeclaration for Oklahoma just seven hours after the most lethal tornado toucheddown, and the declaration includes damages from last weekend’s tornadoes aswell.

“That happened almost immediately,” Paulison said.“That tells me Albert and his crew are right on top of things, and the governorhas enough confidence in the emergency manager to know it’s not a knee-jerkreaction.”

Since Ashwood became chief of the emergencymanagement agency, he has helped the state recover through 36 disasters thatmerited presidential disaster declarations.

Paulison also said the quick deployment ofsearch-and-rescue teams showed Oklahoma was ready, because it did not take longfor the state to ask for and receive out-of-state teams to assist in theeffort.

Even Fallin, the governor, told reporters Tuesdayshe deployed the National Guard before knowing what their exact mission wouldbe after the storm.

At the briefing Tuesday, Ashwood stood next to thegovernor behind a lectern, wearing a white shirt sleeve shirt with the logo ofhis agency. He fielded questions about funding formulas for safety rooms, whichcould protect occupants from tornadoes. But mostly he watched as the heads ofstate and local agencies updated reporters on relief efforts.

The county would be taking in loose livestock at thefairground. The insurance commissioner talked about providing mobile ATMs andprotecting residents against fraud. The police, firefighters, school officialsand utility executives updated residents on their progress.

“(Ashwood) is very much someone who prefers to be inthe background, in support, allowing local elected officials and the governorto provide that very public and needed leadership. He will do absolutelyeverything that the state can to help disaster victims recover as quickly aspossible,” Sheets said.

Ashwood is well-known among emergency managers farfrom Oklahoma. He is a former NEMA president who is now leading the group’sefforts to reform how federal disaster relief funds are administered. He isalso known as a mentor and a coach, Paulison said.

“There’s no secretsout there about who does well and who doesn’t do well in these types ofdisasters,” Paulison said. “He has a very calm demeanor. He doesn’t run aroundwith his hair on fire. He’s very thoughtful about what he says. That commands alot of respect.”

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