9 Investigates: Tornado Safety At Oklahoma Casinos
As the number of casinos and gaming centers in Oklahoma has now climbed well over 100, and so have the odds increased that one of them would be hit by severe weather.
In fact, in the last three years, it's happened at least three times: in Claremore (Will Rogers Downs) in 2016; in Norman (Riverwind) in 2017; and in Thackerville (Winstar) last year.
These instances raise the question of what steps casino operators -- Oklahoma's tribal nations -- have taken to best ensure that employees and patrons can safely weather a storm at their facilities.
"We do training annually for our people, every shift, every department," said Joe Washum, director of safety for Cherokee Nation businesses, "not only about where to evacuate to, but how to help our guests evacuate to those locations."
To better understand the procedures and safeguards that are in place at Oklahoma casinos, News 9 spoke at length with representatives from the Cherokee Nation and the Chickasaw Nation. Together, the tribes operate more than 30 casinos, or about a quarter of all the gaming facilities in the state.
"During severe weather season, our staff closely monitors the weather," stated Dustin Newport, executive officer of protective services for the Chickasaw Nation's Department of Commerce. "Our staff is extremely well-trained."
Newport understands how important this is. He spoke to News 9 at Riverwind Casino in Norman, which was in the path of a severe storm on October 21, 2017.
"Whoa! We just had a gust -- 70 mph!" exclaimed News 9 Stormtracker Val Castor, as he exited Interstate 35 right in front of the casino that night. Castor, along with his wife and storm tracking partner, Amy Castor, noticed power flashes and were buffeted by high winds as an advancing squall line spun off a small tornado.
"I got rocks, I got rocks -- oh, my goodness! Look at this," Val Castor called out.
"I think we have a tornado, Val," Amy Castor concluded.
While that was happening outside of the casino, the Beach Boys were playing a benefit concert inside, to a sold-out crowd that included then-Gov. Mary Fallin.
"I looked up toward the balcony and there's this huge flood of rain coming through the roof into the concert hall," Fallin said in an interview later that night.
Chickasaw Nation authorities said the water that flooded the casino wasn't from the passing storm, but from the building's fire suppression system, which was compromised when the tornado tore air conditioning units from the roof.
Casino officials emphasize that no one was hurt, but they also acknowledge patrons received no warning, either in the concert hall or in the gaming areas.
"The tornado touched down right over the facility before we could issue any warnings," said Newport.
Newport explained, when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for their area, staff respond by directing patrons, via loudspeaker, to the casino's areas of refuge. But, on October 21, 2017, the NWS didn't issue a tornado warning until 8:37 p.m., which is right when the tornado hit.
"That night we were monitoring the weather," Newport said, "and just like most Oklahomans, we did not receive a warning prior to touchdown here at Riverwind Casino."
Even though the tornado had apparently come and gone, as those attending the concert exited the hall, staff could be seen urging people to take shelter in the refuge areas -- the bathrooms.
"The refuge areas in the facility are safe areas that we've designated," explained Newport, "that do have several interior walls that separate them from the outside."
Refuge areas do not necessarily meet the structural standards that FEMA requires for safe rooms and tornado shelters. The term refers to an area in an existing building that has been deemed "likely to protect building occupants during an extreme-wind event better than other areas in the building when a safe room is not available."
At the Hard Rock Casino, the Cherokee Nation also uses refuge areas when severe weather threatens.
"When a tornado comes to a predetermined area," said Joe Washum, "[security staff] will get with management and will make the decision to evacuate the facility, if our facility's going to be in danger."
In the event the decision is made to evacuate, alerts sound and "push teams" begin directing people to the refuge areas.
"They tell the guests, 'You need to cash out, it's time to move' ... if they refuse -- absolutely refuse -- we don't make them," Washum stated. "We just go ahead and mark where they are, just in case."
Washum said they will also shut all the machines down, "so they're not going to be able to game -- we do everything we can to make it the right thing to do for them."
The Cherokee Nation has also decided the "right thing" is to begin putting FEMA-rated safe rooms in their facilities. Washum said they've begun retro-fitting casinos and other tribal buildings with 18 safe rooms.
Those will be the exception, however. At the majority of casinos -- News 9 reached out to tribes that account for about two-thirds of all the casinos in the state -- refuge areas are the norm, and emergency management officials say that's fine.
"There are no laws in Oklahoma that make it a requirement to have a safe room or a storm shelter in any type of business," explained Keli Cain, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
Cain said, while most casinos are certainly going to do their best to warn patrons of approaching severe weather, people must ultimately take responsibility for their own safety.
"There's a good chance that the facility is watching [the weather], and will let you know," Cain said, "but you can't rely on that ... there's a chance that they might not be watching it from that facility, and you might have to leave and go home early, and you may have to make that decision on your own."
Casino operators insist they are watching, because the safety of their guests is their highest priority.
"Because they need to come to a place that they feel is clean, fun, and safe," Washum, with the Cherokee Nation, stated.
"We feel that it is our job to keep our patrons safe inside our facilities," said the Chickasaw Nation's Newport, "and we take that responsibility very seriously."
Statements from other tribes that were contacted for this story:
Choctaw Nation: "At Choctaw Casinos & Resorts, the safety and security of our guests and associates is our top priority. We have an emergency preparedness plan in place at each of our properties that includes severe weather activity."
Citizen Potawatomi: "The Citizen Potawatomi Nation's (CPN) new conference center [is] fully ADA accessible, with entrances through the casino or separately on the west side parking area. It is about 10,000 square feet. It is FEMA compliant and would accommodate about 4,000 people in the event of severe weather."
Muscogee (Creek) Nation: "Each Muscogee (Creek) Nation Casino property and its management team has been trained in emergency preparedness in the event of a tornado or other large weather event.
"A comprehensive emergency management plan all include a section on tornados with specifics on notices, actions by each department, and shelter areas at different stages of tornado watches and warnings. There are specified evacuation areas at each casino property along with evacuation routes where guests should remain during the storm.
"River Spirit Casino Resort has shelter areas in the lower levels of the facility specifically for emergencies such as a tornado, other severe weather similar incidents. The smaller properties were all constructed many years ago and do not have underground shelters."
Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes: "The Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes have contacts with all local emergency management teams throughout our eight county area with which we coordinate action items during any emergency event.
"If one of our casinos receives a tornado warning, the Security department makes an announcement for all guests to cash out their tickets and proceed to the nearest community storm shelter. In the event a tornado is observed on the ground within 50 miles via weather reports and is on track towards a casino, the evacuation process begins along with additional emergency procedures.
"Lucky Star Casino properties have quarterly training on all emergency procedures, including weather, fire, active shooter/hostage situations, robbery, medical, hazardous chemicals, bomb threats and other emergency situations deemed necessary by the Safety department.
"The Safety departments closely monitor severe weather events through various sources and in the event we have to clear the floor, we have an emergency shut-off for all gaming machines.
"We make every effort to alert our guests of impending severe weather and provide directions to the nearest community storm shelter.
"At our Concho location, a storm shelter is available to all tribal employees, tribal members and the local community in the event of severe weather."