The emergency services response to the Jan. 12 ice storm was good, considering available resources, but some community members want to help if and when the next situation occurs.

One key issue was information made available to the public on shelters and other matters. Heather Winn, family and consumer sciences educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County, and Angie Baker-Barnhart, facilitated the meeting.

Barnhart said she became concerned when she realized many people had no place to go when a disaster or emergency occurs.

“We don’t have a community center,” she said. “The people need a place to turn to.”

Winn said the Tahlequah Community Building, where Monday’s meeting was held, sat unoccupied for most of the time the area was without power.

Tahlequah-Cherokee County Emergency Management Director Gary Dotson said the local EM office found five locations for shelters, but only the Cherokee County Detention Center – before prisoners were moved in – and the First United Methodist Church were used.

“They [shelters] have to have water, shower facilities and restrooms,” Dotson said. “They also have to be able to have beds for 100 people.”

Those at the meeting suggested the Community Building could have been used as a meal location.

The Baptist Relief organization provided meals for those using the Methodist church. The shelter was closed late last week. Some said there were undoubtedly some people had no knowledge a shelter had been available at the church.

Scott Pettus, spokesman for the Tahlequah-Cherokee County EM office, said many area residents, when they lost power, were caught with no batteries to operate their radios. He said the local EM office has the ability to override the cable television system, but more and more people are canceling their subscriptions to the local cable system.

Pettus said the local EM office also realized it didn’t have contact numbers for several people and organizations. Dotson said contact lists need periodic updating because of changes.

According to Dotson, many unanswered questions remain in the wake of the storm, and he hopes some answers will soon be forthcoming.

“We haven’t even made it to the [damage] level for a disaster declaration from FEMA yet,” he said. “FEMA’s sending people [today] to meet with me, the mayor and the county commissioners. We’re going to look at some places.”

Dotson said a FEMA declaration will help some property owners with debris removal. The Department of Environmental Quality has authorized some burning of debris in the city.

Dotson said many questions to the EM office concerned power outages because people couldn’t contact their electricity providers. Winn and Baker-Barnhart said building a list of contacts could help in the future, because the list could be publicly distributed in utility bills. People would then have other numbers to call, and EM could deal with more traditional issues.

Baker-Barnhart said many people lacked the knowledge and experience of those from earlier generations on steps like lighting propane heaters. Winn said she learned from previous experience to store food outside in similar situations, because food isn’t safe when the temperature inside the refrigerator goes above 40 degrees.

Those at the meeting also said they knew many people chose for various reasons to stay in their homes without power, instead of going to a shelter or some other location with electricity.

Ryan Hardaway, of the Red Cross, said the organization has few volunteers in Cherokee County. He said the Red Cross would hold training in the county if there is a need, and 10 or more want to participate.

What’s next

There will be a third Response to Emergency Situations meeting Feb. 26 at 10 a.m. in the conference room at the Tahlequah Community Building.

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