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Moore tornado
The path of a recent tornado in Moore, Okla., as viewed on May 22, 2013. A tornado categorized as an EF-5, the strongest category possible, with winds ranging from 200 to 210 mph struck Moore on May 20. The Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reports 24 fatalities related to the storms. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bradley C. Church)
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Tinker flies into action, aids in tornado rescue, relief efforts

Posted 5/24/2013   Updated 5/24/2013 Email story   Print story


by Brandice J. O'Brien
72nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

5/24/2013 - TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla.  -- Moments after a deadly EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Okla., May 20, 2013, Tinker personnel and organizations flew into action, providing help to state agencies, affected residents and the Oklahoma National Guard. Base personnel also helped clear on-base debris caused by the storm.

Tinker initially set up an emergency operations center and several assistance programs in a matter of hours, sent troops and firefighters to the scene and arranged contingencies in the event more help was needed. Lt. Col. Rick "Rico" Johns, 72nd Mission Support Group deputy commander and nighttime EOC director, said relief efforts went off without a hitch.

"It's been outstanding," he said. "We train for this all the time. Training for a tornado is no different than training for a terrorist attack or airplane crash. Everybody has been great; they know what they're doing and everybody, including civilians, has just jumped in to get this done."

Col. Julie Boit, 72 MSG commander and EOC director, agreed.

"Everyone involved was absolutely outstanding and incredibly professional," she said. "They made the mission happen and did whatever it took to figure things out and help our amazing local community. It was inspiring."

Johns said as the tornado, with its winds exceeding 200 mph, swept through Moore, he watched the news with several 72nd Air Base Wing senior leaders, knowing a lot of Airmen and civilians would be affected by the outcome.

Immediately, they stood up the emergency operations center and assessed the situation. After making contact with the state EOC, which stood up May 19 after an EF-4 tornado struck Shawnee, Tinker personnel started gathering and organizing equipment.

Personnel assess base damage, ready equipment

Johns said Airmen from the 552nd Air Control Wing and Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex gassed up 35 diesel-generated lights for search-and-rescue operations. Contractors brought in flatbed trucks to transport the lights. By 11 p.m., the lights were set up at Plaza Towers Elementary School on Southwest 11th Street in Moore.

During the night and the next morning, 300 Airmen from the 552 ACW performed a foreign-object damage walk along the runways on base. Additionally, a damage assessment was performed on base. One building lost water, while several other buildings lost power.

At 8 a.m. on May 21, the EOC sent 43 Airmen from the 552 ACW to Moore to help Oklahoma National Guardsmen at traffic checkpoints. At 12:30 a.m. May 22, they returned to Tinker. Upon return, several Airmen met with the traumatic stress response team to help them cope with devastation they saw first-hand.

Tinker Fire Department sent two fire trucks, a heavy rescue vehicle and 13 firefighters the first day, and maintained a strong presence throughout the rescue effort. In addition to the 13 firefighters operating Tinker rescue apparatus, several firefighters from Tinker assigned to Oklahoma Task Force One, Urban Search and Rescue Team operated with the unified team performing technical rescue operations. Firefighters performed expertly under incredibly stressful conditions at Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools as well as clearing numerous housing areas, looking for persons trapped in the rubble.

Tinker also sent down vehicles with magnetic strips attached to the bottom that help clear the road of harmful debris. The base had four on hand, but quickly came up with two more.

"Thanks to the ingenuity of the folks over in the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex they were able to fasten some magnetic strips we had on to other vehicles and we were able to improvise and provide two more, six total," Boit said. "They really appreciated those."

Should the need have arisen, the EOC put aside several 400-gallon "water buffalo" trailers and portable outhouses. There were also 25 security forces squadron members and four military working dogs given the all-clear to perform search-and-rescue operations.

Devising strategies for those in need

While the EOC planned for the logistics of a recovery effort, the Airman and Family Readiness Center personnel developed a strategy to help the affected families. It is estimated 140 Tinker families had their homes destroyed while nearly 200 additional Tinker family homes are damaged to the point where their occupants are staying elsewhere.

To help those residents, Tinker developed the "Adopt-a-Family" program which allows Tinker personnel to house an affected family.

"The program was made up on the fly at about 10 p.m. on the day of the storm," Johns said. "More than 105 people have offered up their houses and a couple of people have taken them up on it."

That same night, Johns said base personnel set up the Gerrity Fitness and Sports Center multi-purpose room with 40 cots and sleeping bags, 20 tables and 50 chairs for anyone who might need a place to stay. Other base gyms were kept open in case people needed to shower.

"Taking care of our military and civilian Airmen and their families is our top priority," Johns said. "We also started a 100 percent accountability, which is to physically contact every single person in every single squadron and group."

Setting up extra phone lines, housing donations

The EOC and A&FRC also set up the Emergency Family Assistance Center, which offers the aid and assistance of the chaplain, Air Force Aid Society to allot loans, medical personnel, transportation, and pet issues to Airmen and civilians affected by the storm.

"It's been so successful that we had the 72nd Air Base Wing Communications Directorate come in and set up extra phone lines, because the one was completely jammed," Johns said.

Despite the EOC and A&FRC's efforts, the community has asked if it can help through donations. Johns said donations are accepted and stored at a large warehouse within the 3rd Combat Communications Group's complex. Depending on need, items are given to Airmen or are trucked to Moore.

Johns said Tinker's role has since lessened. Their role was only meant for the initial emergency situation and as a placeholder until regional Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel filter in from Dallas. Despite their short-term need, Tinker's efforts couldn't have been better, he said.

"The whole base just did it. Everybody knew what they were going to do and there were no complaints whatsoever, even though they were working long hours," he said. "They just did it."

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