Oklahoma tornado hits home for Harford

The massive tornado that devastated suburban Oklahoma City on Monday was followed closely by many in Harford County, as it was around the nation.

Krista Demcher, a Bel Air resident, who lived in Lawton, Okla., for five years while her husband was in the military, said she experienced a tornado practically as soon as she got there.

"The third day I was there, there was a tornado," she recalled.

A tree from her yard hit her neighbor's car, and Demcher had worried that their boxes, which were still waiting to be unpacked outside on the curb, had been strewn all over the place.

That was when she learned that people in Oklahoma looked out for each other.

"I thought, oh, my gosh, there's going to be boxes and debris everywhere," she said. "These neighbors who I didn't even know were already out there picking it up for me."

"People really care about each other and want to help each other," she noted. "It's just a really great, warm, open kind of environment."

Demcher lived at Fort Sill, in Lawton, from 2001 to 2006 but traveled roughly 70 miles to Norman, near Oklahoma City, several times a week and knew some people in that area.

She said she instantly got on Facebook to make sure they were fine, and none of her acquaintances turned out to be in the path of the storm.

Major buildings in Oklahoma have storm shelters, and Demcher said she definitely felt like residents were prepared for most, typical tornadoes.

She and her husband were at the movies once when a tornado hit and they were taken to a storm shelter at the mall, she said.

"When we came out, it was kind of apocalyptic," she said.

Nothing she saw, however, compared to the massive tornado that hit the city Monday.

"It's just heartbreaking and it's just kind of crazy when you look at the videos and [imagine] trying to live through that," she said. "We had some smaller tornadoes and even that was terrifying."

Demcher watched the news as rescuers and ordinary residents came together to help pull students out of schools and help their neighbors and friends.

She said she is considering helping out with the relief efforts, without traveling to Oklahoma again.

"I just know that people there are going to rise up and do what they have to do to help and re-build," she said.

Hospital preparations

Upper Chesapeake Health officials regularly conduct drills at their local facilities, which include Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital Havre de Grace, to prepare for disasters similar to Monday's tornado, including a direct hit on one of the medical centers.

An evacuation drill was held at Harford Memorial Friday.

They almost had to deal with the real thing last June, however, when an F1 tornado tore through Fallston.

"[It] actually was on track for Upper Chesapeake before it dissipated, so we got to practice our plan," Safety Coordinator Todd Dousa recalled Tuesday.

The twister dissipated about a mile and a half from the Bel Air hospital. The tornado, one of a series which hit Central Maryland on June 1, 2012, left an estimated $1 million in damage in Harford County and several people injured.

Upper Chesapeake staff also had to deal with impacts from Hurricane Sandy last fall, when roads in Havre de Grace flooded and some local residents sought temporary shelter at the hospital.

"The community sees the hospital as a safe haven, so it's not unusual for people to come to where it's dry and then move on," Dousa said. "We certainly encourage them to go to county-established shelters."

Dousa said Upper Chesapeake officials prepare for situations in which a medical facility is hit directly by a storm, and has to take in a large number of patients from a nearby disaster site.

He said Upper Chesapeake has an agreement with operators of sister hospitals in Baltimore, Baltimore County, plus Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties, to take in patients and staff if a medical facility is incapacitated.

Upper Chesapeake is also prepared to receive large numbers of patients during a mass casualty event, with "secondary locations" for extra patients, Dousa explained.

"And we can even set up a triage tent, so that those with minor injuries can be taken care of quickly and discharged while we focus on the more critical cases in the actual ED [Emergency Department]," he continued.

No official relief

Harford County officials did not know of any formal relief efforts yet going from this area to Oklahoma.

"Harford County has received no requests from FEMA or MEMA or directly from the State of Oklahoma, to provide assistance to those areas struck by tornadoes this week," county spokesman Bob Thomas said.

The county would need to get an official request for help for anything to move forward, he said.

Schools prepare

Officials with Harford County Public Schools, who must prepare for multiple emergencies which could affect local schools, include tornado preparation in their disaster planning.

Administrators in all of Harford County's 54 schools, plus office buildings, must develop Critical Incident Plans for responses to different incidents, including natural disasters.

In the case of a tornado, school administrators would activate a Shelter in Place plan, which are practiced in the schools, Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for the school system, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.

"There are pre-designated shelter areas within each building which is identified as the lowest point in building away from windows and doors," Kranefeld wrote. "The plan also provides guidance for students and staff to assume the tornado protection position."

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