By JOSH NEWTON
Community leaders are constantly looking for ways to deal with natural disasters, which cost the nation billions of dollars every year.
Cherokee County officials are in the early stages of updating a hazard mitigation plan for the city of Tahlequah and Tahlequah Public Schools. It’s a months-long process meant to pinpoint local needs and provide solutions for the future.
“Every five years, we go through and write a plan for the city. We find all of our major hazards, which allows us to go in and borrow money,” said Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management Director Gary Dotson.
Ronald Flanagan, principal planner for R.D. Flanagan & Associates Planning Consultants out of Tulsa, is leading monthly public meetings to allow local minds to work together on creating a new HMP. Meetings are every second Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in the Armory Municipal Center.
“We, as a country, are sustaining losses due to natural hazards much faster than we can pay for them,” Flanagan said Tuesday. “In Oklahoma, in 2007, we passed the line where our damages and payments by the insurance companies exceed the premiums being paid, and we can’t sustain that. Either they’re going to raise all of our homeowners insurance rates, or we’ve got to find some way to mitigate or cut down on the losses.”
According to Flanagan, the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests communities address natural hazards at the local level and find solutions to reduce damage and loss.
“And if they will do that, FEMA will give them 75 percent federal funding to implement the kinds of things they come up with,” said Flanagan. “So, in order to get the 75 percent funding, you’ve got to come up with a plan, you’ve got to go through a planning process, and that’s what we’re doing. The process involves everybody in the community who has anything to do with hazards and disasters: the Red Cross, the hospitals, the police, fire, emergency management, the city planning department.”
During the meetings, committee members look at varying phenomenon, and how to address those issues. Tuesday’s meeting focused on lightning and hail.
“We say here are the kinds of damages, here are the vulnerable populations and the vulnerable city infrastructure, and here’s what we can do about it, then we come up with a plan and identify mitigation measures,” said Flanagan.
As an example, Flanagan said 87 percent of all homeowners’ loss claims are related to damaged roofs.
“Well, the solution to that is obviously hail-resistant roofing. It costs so little more, and the insurance companies will give homeowners a 20 to 25 percent discount if they will put hail-resistant roofing on their houses,” said Flanagan. “It sounds like an easy deal, but it’s not, because, for example, the roofing industry would rather you replace your roof every five years than every 50 years. When a homeowner says, ‘Hey, I’d like to talk to you about hail-resistant roofing for my house,’ they don’t bother to tell the citizens that insurance will give you a discount. So these are the kinds of issues we discuss in this meeting.”
Later this year, the hazard mitigation plan will be wrapped up, when committee members have had the chance to talk about flooding, high winds, tornadoes, extreme heat, wildfires, hazardous materials, and more.
Addressing presents local problems
During Tuesday’s meeting on the hazard mitigation plan, Flanagan said a discussion on flood issues had to be postponed because data needed to confront the issue is, at least in part, unavailable.
Some of the problem focuses on a lack of updated addressing and other data, he said.
“There isn’t any parcel data to identify the parcels in the middle part of the county,” said Flanagan. “So we came down, did a field survey, walked the floodplains to get addresses, and lo and behold, there aren’t even addresses on a lot of properties, and I wonder how in the world you guys do your business when there’s a lack of that information. How do you guys respond to an emergency when there’s not even an address on the building to be able to respond to?”
Flanagan said the community needs to target the addressing issue soon.
“It seems to me you guys are a growing community, and the future is ahead of you. Don’t we need to get a handle on this stuff right now and start getting this stuff together?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you have an ordinance or something that requires every building to have a visible address on it for emergency response purposes?”
Tahlequah Planning and Development Director Doug Moore said the city does have such an ordinance on the books, but enforcement has previously been lacking. Moore said community leaders are looking at the problems as they surface.
Cherokee County 911 Coordinator Marty Kimble said addressing for emergency purposes has, at times, been a “sensitive subject.”
“If you’ll give me the areas you need addressed, we will address it; that’s our responsibility at 911, to do all of the addressing,” said Kimble. “We’re changing addresses and fixing addresses in Tahlequah as we go out, or as somebody comes in and gets a new address. You have to understand, addressing in Cherokee County and Tahlequah is monumental. I sat down with the mayor when I first came into the office and told him the people will be knocking on his door, because when you change someone’s address because it’s not correct in the system, they get mad. We don’t do it light-heartedly; we do it out of emergency necessity only.”
Flanagan said the hazard mitigation planning process is designed so these issues are brought to light and communities can begin to find solutions.
“We could put it in our mitigation plan as a recommendation, as a mitigation measure, that the city of Tahlequah should require visible street addresses,” said Flanagan. “It’s a big problem. You change their address, they have to notify everybody that that address is no longer valid. It’s a big pain, no doubt about it. But on the other hand, what do you do? Do you just allow those kind of impediments, then, to shut down the whole system?”
Flanagan said he hopes to find some solutions and gather the needed data so the committee could discuss flooding issues in April.