Natural disasters

Part of the FEMA paperwork for the 2019 Woodward County flooding event in Woodward County Emergency Management Director Lt. Matt Lehenbauer’s office. (Photo provided)

Natural disasters are definitely on the rise. According to QuoteWizard analysis of FEMA data, disasters nationally increased a whooping 165 percent from 2000 through 2017 as compared to the time period of 1980 through 1999.

“Yeah those numbers are staggering and people don't realize how much these percentages of disasters affected Oklahoma,” Woodward County Emergency Management Director Lt. Matt Lehenbauer said. “Actually Woodward County is rated, as of right now and we still have four ongoing federal disaster declarations for Woodward County, number two in the state of Oklahoma for natural disasters. Oklahoma is rated number three in the nation.”

The primary natural disaster has been wildfires, with Oklahoma one of the leading states, according to the analysis. The increase in natural disasters in Oklahoma has been 578 percent, with an average of seven per year since 2000 compared to less than one per year in the two decades before.

“The flooding we got declared for May and June (2019), we’ve got better than a half a million dollars in damages to county roads,” Lehenbauer added. “It's pretty incredible… Each one of those, we get what's called public assistance. It's federal aid back to our government agencies to try to recoup some of those damage costs.”

Not only are natural disasters becoming more frequent, but the analysis shows they are also larger in size, more structures affected and causing more casualties.

“It's been about all I can do. The last five or six years about 95% of my job is more paperwork than anything else,” Lehenbauer said. “And unfortunately with the economy around here, I mean we have to recoup that money, but it's hard to do other preparedness items. It’s kind of been a hinderance for sure, because the paperwork just is incredible.”

For one item as an example from the 2017 ice storm:

▪ Tree down in an intersection.

▪ Employee’s information, including hours, wage and benefits.

▪ Vehicle year, make and model that was used for employee to get to location.

▪ Equipment used to remove debris. (i.e. chainsaw: horsepower, fuel and hours used.)

▪ Cubic hards of debris removed from around that tree.

▪ What year, make and model of vehicle picked the tree up.

▪ Where the tree was transported.

▪ Permits for disposal, whether tree was burned or disposed of otherwise.

“It's amazing, because each person, and each day, in each spot they worked in, I have to track everything that they do,” Lehenbauer said. “It is overwhelming because you have to prove every step of that process and everything that every employee was doing every minute of the day. All the materials used, of course, and how many hours on each piece of equipment that they have.”

QuoteWizard’s analysis briefly mentioned climate change as a possible reason, but Lehenbauer has other thoughts. He said the rules on what qualifies for a federally declared natural disaster are changing on almost a yearly basis.

“Yes, we're seeing more disasters and of course the climate change issue always comes up every time we have one,” Lehenbauer said. “But you've got to look long term and there's not enough data. Some of the data has been manipulated. There's been a lot of those reports come out in the last 10 years or so where there's been data manipulation. And a lot of that is for profiteering.”

Lehenbauer compared meteorology to the science of the mind and brain, saying we’ve just scratched the surface of it.

“Meteorology has really taken off in the last about 100 years or so,” Lehenbauer said. “The computer models and the things we rely on are still not very reliable… There's so many factors in play at every level of the atmosphere all the way up, several hundred miles.”

The climate is changing, it’s always changing and has always changed, Lehenbauer said.

“God's in control, not us,” Lehenbauer said. “Belief that humans can have a major impact on climate change, elevates them to a godlike status… We are not that all powerful and almighty to completely destroy this earth.”

Lehenbauer noted we do have individual responsibility to take care of what we’ve been given

“I don't dump my motor oil in the ditch and I don't throw my trash on the side of the road.” Lehenbauer said, adding that you need to control what you can and "make sure you're taking care of what you've been given."

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