This is a developing story.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Emergency Management Department began working to anticipate community needs even before a devastating tornado hit Pottawatomie County on the evening of April 19. Department Director Tim Zientek set off storm sirens in the CPN area three times last night, beginning at approximately 7 p.m.
“We started working before, watching the storm come in. … It is not often, if hardly ever, that you see a tornado that travels to the northwest,” he said.
The EF0 tornado had low windspeed but was moving at 150 mph, leaving destruction across Shawnee. It hit Shawnee High School, Shawnee Mall, Oklahoma Baptist University, housing complexes, neighborhoods and more.
Shawnee Mayor Ed Bolt signed an emergency declaration for the city Thursday morning. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt said he is “looking at declaring an emergency declaration here for these four counties, so our teams are working hard to get all the local communities the support they need.”
An initial damage assessment completed at about 3 a.m. had nearly 2,000 structures marked as damaged or destroyed.
“As far as CPN goes, we’ve been extremely fortunate,” Zientek said. “But with over 1,700 homes or structures damaged, I’m pretty sure that some of those are going to be Tribal members at some point, somewhere.”
The Tribe experienced mostly superficial damage across enterprises and offices, including broken skylights, debris and damaged trees. Most significant was the destruction of the CPN Distribution Center, formerly Hardesty Grocery, at the corner of Hardesty Rd. and S. Gordon Cooper Dr.
Damage to Rural Water District 3 will be determined as streets are cleared of debris. Zientek named reopening streets for emergency personnel a priority as well as “life and property, mostly life.” No deaths have been reported.
More than 20 emergency management units and agencies filled the parking lot between FireLake Arena and FireLake Ball Fields in the overnight hours.
“We’ve been coordinating with agencies from all over the state, and I mean, all over the state,” Zientek said.
That included the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation emergency services mobile command units, all of which participate in the Intertribal Emergency Management Coalition. The Chickasaw Nation helped fly drones across the larger Shawnee and CPN area for damage assessments along with Pottawatomie County Emergency Management.
“We have power, we have fuel, we have places for them to eat, and we have a large enough parking lot for them to bring in the massive equipment that came in,” including skid steers, backhoes and more to move debris out of the roadway, Zientek said.
CPN also welcomed the American Red Cross to use its Reunion Hall as a shelter. It hosted approximately 10 people overnight and welcomed many people throughout the day to charge their phones, grab a snack and water, or take a break.
“We knew the places that we normally used were either destroyed or had no power or electricity,” said Sherry Schauer, Red Cross Disaster Program Manager for South Central and Southeast Oklahoma chapters. “So, CPN was very generous to let us come in and let us use their facilities. And they are also letting us use their facilities for our headquarters as well in Tecumseh.”
Shawnee resident and former Red Cross volunteer Shar Tipton came to the shelter with her son, Robert. Their apartment complex was badly damaged with uprooted trees, roof damage, downed power lines and more. They stopped in for a place to rest and charge their phones.
“We’ve been without power since the tornadoes came through last night, and we’ve got a lot of people checking in on us,” she said. “And it’s our contact right now. I posted on Facebook that we’re okay, but that was probably about the last thing I was able to do. As a previous Red Cross volunteer, I knew they would have things on the ground.”
Tipton and her family are part of the nearly 15,000 residents without power; however, CPN’s businesses and offices remained open on Thursday with the surrounding powerlines functioning.
Crews continue to work clearing roads assisted by the Muscogee Nation Arbor Care services.
The next major concern is fuel; many service stations in Shawnee and the surrounding area are without power and remain closed. The FireLake Convenience Store is open, and patrons waited for upwards of 45 minutes to fill their tanks.
Phone and internet throughout Citizen Potawatomi Nation are intermittent.
Zientek and his crew continue to work with state, tribal and county agencies in the wake of the tornado.
“Right now, we’re here at command post. We’re still just coordinating whatever needs are throughout the community, throughout the county,” he said.