When severe weather struck the Shawnee, Oklahoma, area on April 19, 2023, Citizen Potawatomi Nation was there to help with recovery.
“There were five confirmed tornadoes within our jurisdiction,” CPN Director of Safety and Housekeeping Tim Zientek said.
Zientek estimated that 1,000-1,500 emergency response vehicles were in the FireLake Arena parking lot following the storm. He said if he had to guess, there were nearly 100 different agencies that responded the first night.
“The close network of first responders, and their willingness to come out on a dark and stormy night to assist any way they can, from local fire departments, search and rescue teams, Oklahoma Task Force,” Zientek said. “It was an amazing sight to see the entire parking lot in front of the arena full of emergency service vehicles.”
In the days following, CPN partnered with the American Red Cross, using CPN’s North Reunion Hall to provide shelter and assistance for a time. Later, those services were moved to another location.
“Workforce and Social Services was cooking meals and delivering to a lot of the folks that had no power but could still stay in their home,” he said. “The Grand Casino supplied a lot of meals, working with the Salvation Army. They would fix the meals, and the Salvation Army would pick them up and distribute to anyone affected, including the response teams.”
CPN also offered powerline restoration companies a space to set up and bring equipment, as well as allowing Oklahoma Gas & Electric to use the primitive campgrounds.
“They erected this giant tent, and that’s where they housed themselves,” Zientek said, explaining that the power companies contracted with a chain restaurant to supply meals for contractors. “We just gave them a place to park. At one time, we had probably close to 4,000 pieces of equipment on property.”
He said CPN also donated $100,000 to the United Way to be used for recovery, and that the Avedis Foundation matched that donation. One way that money was used was to help homeowners — such as assisting those who had a weatherhead damaged and couldn’t afford to get it fixed to turn the electricity back on.
In the weeks following, CPN also partnered with the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and Feed the Children. In two hours, volunteers at FireLake Arena passed out boxes of non-perishable food, hygiene items, books and comfort kits to 800 families.
Zientek added that once there was no longer a need, the Tribe passed on donated items to other Tribes and municipalities. These items included food, cleanup kits, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and even medical cots.
“We’ve distributed those around the state to different Tribal entities, different counties, so they’ll have them in case they have an emergency,” Zientek said.
Damage at CPN
CPN also suffered some damage, though Zientek said the Tribe was lucky not to have sustained more damage than it did.
Between tornados and windstorms in the months of April, May and June, he said there was an estimated $4 million in damage just for CPN.
Damage included downed trees and awnings, roof damage to several buildings, fences knocked down and the destruction of one building.
Zientek said repairs could take a while, but explained that at the end of August, the Tribe received insurance approval to start repairs.
Recovery efforts continue in the area, and Zientek said the city of Shawnee is nearly finished with curbside debris pickup.
“There are still numerous people that have no way to move debris from their yards out to the curbside,” he said. “Lots of them have no insurance, or they’re underinsured. It has really been havoc on Shawnee.”
In addition to help from CPN, he said other agencies and tribes also worked to help area residents.
“During the response phase right after the tornado hit, there were at least seven different tribes on property here to support and offer what services they could,” he said.
Some of those services included the use of side-by-side UTVs to transport food into impacted housing additions and flying drones to track the damage path.
The Choctaw Tribe brought an emergency operations center, and the Chickasaw Tribe and Muskogee Creek Nation sent arborists to remove trees from tribal homes.
“We set up a system where if a tribal member called Social Services, they would put them on the list with the name and address and where to send the arbor service,” Zientek said. “They would go there and work all day, whatever the address was. And it didn’t matter what tribe they were affiliated with, and even our employees.”
Zientek said it will be a “long, drawn out process” and that complete recovery will take years. However, he spoke highly of everyone who came together to help.
“I can’t say enough about our partners,” he said. “We are very close partners with Pottawatomie County Emergency Management, Absentee Shawnee, and being the chairman of the Intertribal Emergency Management Coalition, partnered with nearly every tribe in the state of Oklahoma.”