Mark Lepak

Greetings from the state capitol! Let’s dispense from the usual end-of-session readout about the budget. You’ve read a couple of really good pieces from our state senator, but severe storms, tornadoes, and flooding have our attention focused on recovery. We should offer kudos to all involved in preparing for and reacting to the worst of circumstances. Typically, we think of those people working in government, such as public safety or emergency management, or of volunteers associated with non-profits, or even family, friends, and neighbors. I would like to call attention to others who are often overlooked, and then shift to the events the last couple of weeks.

I spent 37 years working for a large telecommunications provider, in a variety of assignments, but most of that time in a network operations capacity. Some of those job posts were in operations centers directing and coordinating field activity, and some were on the other end, in the field. We dealt with service issues of all sorts, ranging from a simple power outage to an equipment location requiring use of our emergency generators and fuel management procedures, to others that were widespread disasters lasting long periods of time-- the sort we are dealing with today.

I’m remembering people who the public will never know. I remember tornados, occurring decades apart, that destroyed the homes of some employees, and in each event, employees who wouldn’t leave work because their jobs were to find a way to restore communications service to others. I remember one who called in during an approaching snow storm (anyone remember the feet of snow we got winter of ’10-‘11?), asking for permission to stay overnight in his equipment location, so he could be available in an emergency, but if nothing else, to assure his presence when his shift started again. The current flooding reminds me of an employee a few years ago who kept a small, but critical, very remote equipment location dry and in service by using sandbags, plastic sheeting and some plywood, along with a pump and an emergency generator, which he refueled periodically from his boat. I remember a labor strike in the early 80’s ending when a hurricane struck the Gulf, and employees, set aside their differences to serve their customers. Eighteen years ago, hundreds of local employees volunteered to help restore service in the upper Midwest when severe winter storms overwhelmed the locals. When weather gets bad, you and I often think of closing early and getting on home, hoping to find some last minute things at the grocery store along the way. But these are the people who, when at home, once they become aware they might be needed, get up, get dressed, and get to work without being asked. While most of us hunker down, they know they might not return home for a long time. And if you thank them, they say they’re just doing their jobs.

These examples are not unique to the business I loved. You see the same thing with power companies, whether private or municipal or cooperative. This time around, you saw people in both private and public sectors working to preserve water and sewer treatment plants and power-generating and transmission facilities, while others fought to restore service where they could.

One of the most difficult things when there are widespread and simultaneous events occurring, is the difficulty in coordinated communications. “All hands on deck” can seem disjointed and unorganized. We watched television, listened to the radio, and called each other. We used social media, and even CB radio. We reached out in any way we could to check on each other, to find out where to get help, or how to help. We called news media, law enforcement, public officials, and anyone else we could think of.

One unappreciated challenge is the difficulty coordinating between the private and public sectors. In these situations, I think it important to realize that the events themselves can affect our ability to communicate, and that plans heavily dependent on communication can unravel quickly when that is hampered. In my time as a phone company guy, the challenges confronted by the power company mattered a lot in terms of the priorities I set. Understanding where to get timely, accurate data from the Army Corps of Engineers was critical when we knew we had flooding risk along the MO and AR border when the entire Mississippi and Missouri River valleys were getting drenched and those levees were threatened. Hurricane prep in the Gulf was entirely unique, and although there were several days advance notice, storm tracks changed frequently, requiring shifting resources and priorities along several hundred miles of potential coastal and inland need. My days in the network operations center, with all the personnel sifting through real time and historical data from sources inside and outside of the company, today cause me to look back and wonder how we did it, and to not miss it!

As things slow down, we’re going to hear a lot about how government at all levels performed, but the private sector will be doing the same thing internally, maybe more publically for some of our utility companies. We should look for a few things. Were the public warnings sufficient and timely? What was the public response to instruction and warnings? We should hear about whether or not there were “business continuity plans” or “disaster plans” in place, which document emergency procedures and protocols, roles and responsibilities, communications strategies, and many other elements. Those plans should include regular drills and training exercises (including “table top exercises”, similar to what a ball team does as a “walk through” before a game). But we should recognize that all plans are imperfect, and events can align to thwart the best of them. “Post mortems” should be conducted (you’ll hear fancy names, like “after action analysis”, to describe the process) where individuals and groups are pulled together, regardless of how well or poorly a plan was executed, to identify what went well, to understand how to improve performance, to develop key learnings, to develop mitigation and corrective plans, and to improve and resume preparatory activity for the next time. Some action items are easy, others are more problematic, especially when significant funding must be committed. And as time goes by, our attention will move on to other events. The awareness and discipline to follow through on correction plans will be the most critical part.

I remember one bad day in Tulsa with my old company, where 2/3 of the cities in the old 918 area code were isolated, and much of the downtown area was without service at all. We discovered issues that required a complete review and redesign of our network infrastructure, our routine maintenance, and our physical plant in key locations, which led to companywide corrective action. It took years and millions of dollars eliminating “single points of failure” in our network to meet customer (and shareholder) expectations. That event was over twenty years ago—and I hope today’s generation of employees haven’t forgotten the lessons learned the hard way. But the same parallel can be drawn to the last two weeks.

In events such as the flooding we’ve seen, where we’ve passed the immediate emergency, and aftermath will be felt for months and years, people will be trying to engage as they are able to return home and assess their damages. I have a short list of things we could do better (we’re all Monday morning quarterbacks), which I will pass along to the appropriate folks when the time is right. One key take away for me is how we guide people who have sustained damage or total loss. I’m getting reports of people responding to what they are hearing and seeing in media “to get help”. But what they are getting might not be what they are looking for. They might be referred by one organization to another, which sends them back where they started. People might be friendly, and want to help them, but have limited vision or scope that provides any certainty to those seeking assistance. Individual needs may vary—some may need temporary food and shelter, while others are trying to learn what assistance might be available long term so they can start the process of cleaning up, rebuilding, or moving on. Some just need some advice. Non-profits, such as Red Cross, the United Way, the Salvation Army, churches, and the like have differing missions and limited scope. Governmental entities at the city, county, state, and federal level do not co-exist in one location, so understanding the responsibilities and services each offers can be complicated and confusing, especially for someone in crisis. I’d be interested in what you have observed or experienced.

For now, thanks to all people, whether employees in the public or private sector, who are “just doing their jobs”, volunteered, have stepped out of their roles to help, or who offered financial or other support. Oklahomans are the best when challenges mount. Visitors to our state specifically point it out, so I think that is pretty good testament. Together, we are resilient—that is what you see when folks don’t wait on government to save them.

And in the end, we shouldn’t forget the power of prayer.

If you need to reach me during the interim, please call my office at 405-557-7380, or write to me at Representative Mark Lepak, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd, Rm. 441, State Capitol Building, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105.

State Rep. Mark Lepak (R-Claremore) can be reached via email at mark.lepak@okhouse.gov.