Tulsa Health Department’s Response to Tulsa County Historic 2019 Flooding
by Bruce D. Dart, PhD
“While it is our job to serve Tulsa County residents, it became our mission to bring hope back to people’s lives as we responded to this disaster.”
In early May 2019, a series of thunderstorms began dropping monsoon-like precipitation across northern Oklahoma. The water ran down streams into Keystone Lake, resulting in water levels above flood stage. In response, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began to release water from the Keystone Dam into the Arkansas River. As the rain fell, no one could have foreseen the devastation and destruction from the resulting flooding that took place from the beginning to the end of the non-stop storms. At its highest level, officials released 300,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from the dam into the river. Tulsa County’s 70-year-old levies did their job to the extent they were designed to do, but the released waters inundated the neighborhoods below the dam, including parts of Sand Springs, Tulsa, Bixby, Broken Arrow, Jenks, and an unincorporated subdivision known as Town & Country.
The Tulsa Health Department (THD) had numerous responsibilities when flooding began, and as we worked to maintain accountability to partners and community members, it was important that we supported our affected Tulsa County residents with empathy and compassion. While it is our job to serve Tulsa County residents, it became our mission to bring hope back to people’s lives as we responded to this disaster. Hope helps to remind those affected that support is all around them, starting with their own strengths and that they could rely on us to be there, for as long as they needed us.
Like most local health departments, THD has an emergency operations plan as part of an all-hazards response, and we train, practice, and improve upon our response capability constantly. We are prepared to fulfill our responsibilities to our constituents when their lives are disrupted by unforeseen natural disasters, but while planning/response focuses on the actions we must undertake, sometimes the forgotten part of the equation is that people are impacted in horrendous life changing ways and that we need to be there for them in ways we cannot practice! Tulsa County 2019 FloodingDr. Bruce Dart relates the story of the @TulsaHealthDept 's compassionate response to residents impacted by historic #flooding in 2019. #BootsOnTheGround @JPHMPDirect Click To Tweet
Our response team puts people and their needs first. At a community meeting early in the response, one official was nervous and concerned because some people, who were shattered and scared, manifested those feelings with acute anger directed at political and city leaders in attendance. The official told me they don’t get paid to get yelled at. I replied “I do; let’s go!” We learned a long time ago that talking helps relieve stress, even if the yelling comes first. I felt that this was the first opportunity to talk about what people were feeling about what had happened. It was our goal to walk with those affected by the floods as they weathered this storm and the stormy existence that followed. We had to be present and take responsibility to listen to their stories, over, and over, and to allow them their entire range of emotions, while being unafraid to hear (or share in) their anger, pain, and tears.
In addition to hearing our constituents, our tremendous Emergency Preparedness and Response staff assisted the flood response by: Tulsa County 2019 Flooding
- Transferring 70 wooden pallets from the Regional Distribution Site to the US Army Corps of Engineers to assist with sandbag operations as well as assisting with filling operations at US Army Corps of Engineers, Tulsa County 2019 Flooding
- Providing 24/7 reach back availability to the Tulsa County Emergency Operations Center and Medical Emergency Response Center, serving daily 12-hour shifts at the Tulsa County Emergency Operations Center as public health liaison and providing agency briefings and coordinating public health field response to ensure shelters were ready for occupancy, and
- Supporting vaccination strike team operations in the Town & County neighborhood, Jenks, Broken Arrow, Bixby, and Sand Springs with personnel and supplies.
The THD’s Environmental Health Service’s program priorities during the flooding included:
- Ensuring an adequate supply of safe drinking water,
- Providing food protection measures,
- Ensuring basic sanitation services,
- Promoting personal hygiene,
- Assisting the efforts of first responders by providing health risk consultations or advising on exposure pathways,
- Providing information to emergency managers to help assess the scale of the emergency to ensure an effective response, and
- Assessing shelter operations prior to opening.
Additionally, approximately 8 gallons of adulticide were sprayed in Town & Country (and the nearby vicinity) and 173 “briquettes” of various larvacide were applied to standing water, totaling over 17,000 square feet of coverage. Thirty-seven pounds of granular type larvacides were applied to flooded areas, which had a coverage area of four acres of standing water. Mosquito trapping, collecting, sorting, and virus testing occurred weekly, starting May 27th, as waters were receding and will continue through the traditional mosquito season. Tulsa County 2019 Flooding
Coordinated by the THD, the Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps volunteers responded to assist with the following activations:
- Humane Emergency Animal Response Team (HEART) for sheltering of over 200 pets and livestock displaced by flood evacuations for both large and small animals in Tulsa and Muskogee Counties Tulsa County 2019 Flooding
- Stress Response Team (SRT) served at the State EOC reviewing and triaging emergency messages from disaster impacted citizens and provided appropriate referrals as well as serving as ambassadors for mental health support at the Multi-Agency Resource Centers (MARCs)
The total number of volunteer hours donated to response efforts through the Medical Reserve Corps was 1,469.5 hours. Prior to the floods, the THD was selected as a National Outstanding MRC Housing Organization, and Carrie Suns, THD OKMRC Coordinator, was presented with the Dallas Littledeer OKMRC Heart and Soul Award. Suns has been a longtime Tulsa MRC unit coordinator who has gone above and beyond to help volunteers, Tulsa County, and state partners and was instrumental and tireless in her efforts to serve Tulsa County residents affected by the floods.
I cannot say enough about our residents who experienced and weathered this disaster; they are the true heroes in this story. The THD had to think strategically and act deliberately, but people who lost everything were able to exhibit a dignity and grace beyond imagination. The line separating heroes and victims is a thin one. Tulsa County had a host of unnamed heroes during these floods, starting with those who lived it! Tulsa County 2019 Flooding
You Might Also Enjoy These Articles in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:
- A Renewed Framework for Local Health Departments
- Examining the Role of Twitter in Response and Recovery During and After Historic Flooding in South Carolina
- Public Health System Response to Extreme Weather Events
- Content, Accessibility, and Dissemination of Disaster Information via Social Media During the 2016 Louisiana Floods
- Minigrants to Local Health Departments: An Opportunity to Promote Climate Change Preparedness
Read all columns in this series:
- Summer at a Local Health Department and the Eisenhower Matrix
- Measles in New York: The Outbreak, the Response, and the Potential Unintended Consequences
- Trust: An Essential Ingredient for Becoming a Chief Health Strategist
- Introducing Boots on the Ground: Narratives from Today’s Local Public Health Workforce
As with community health improvement, we are stronger if we work together. If you are interested in sharing your story, please contact Dr. Cynthia Morrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Dart has served 5 local health departments in 3 states during his 39 year career in public health. Currently, he is the executive director of the Tulsa City/County Health Department (THD), a local public health agency of 350 team members in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dart serves in a leadership role as a member of several National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) work committee’s and is a NACCHO Past-President and former Board member. He serves on the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB and their Accreditation Review Committee. He is a Year 15 graduate of the National Public Health Leadership Institute and his team was co-winner of the Martha Katz award for best project. He has received an appointment as a Visiting Associate Professor in the Oklahoma University College of Public Health and serves on the Child Abuse Network, MyHealth, Morton FQHC, and Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Board of Directors in Tulsa. He received his BA in Biology from Drury University (MO) in 1977, his MS in Administration (Health Services) from Central Michigan University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in Health Services from Walden University (MN) in 2005. [Full bio]