Wells stands in front of the damaged Cash America building in
downtown Fort Worth.
SKIES DIDN'T STOP BENBRROK resident Keith Wells (’91) from taking
his two children out for dinner last March 28.
before they could eat, Wells’ work pager sounded. After the children
were safely at home, he drove through high water to downtown Fort
Worth — which had just been severely damaged by a tornado.
the city, Wells could see that the Bank One and UPR Plaza towers
had gaping holes from blown-out windows.
is the assistant emergency management coordinator for the Fort Worth/Tarrant
County Emergency Management Office, headed straight to the Emergency
Operations Center in the basement of City Hall. He stayed there
for most of the next 36 hours, coordinating police and fire departments,
utility and phone companies, and the Red Cross and other agencies.
between 6:45 and 7 p.m., shortly after the tornado hit downtown,
and didn’t leave until 2 a.m. I was back at 6 a.m., left at 11 p.m.
and was back at 6 a.m.,” says Wells, a graduate of UNT’s emergency
administration and planning program. “Everything is now a blur.”
Operations Center is only activated for widespread disasters, which
are classified from Level 1 to Level 4. The tornado — the first
deadly one in Fort Worth’s history — was a Level 4 activation disaster.
economics to emergencies
the University of Texas at El Paso before transferring to UNT. He
majored in economics and business but dropped out in 1980 to work
for Southwestern Bell. He returned nine years later, planning to
finish his bachelor’s degree in business.
One of his
classmates was in the emergency administration and planning program,
which sparked his interest in the field. Wells visited with three
of the program’s faculty members — Tom Joslin, Bob Reed and David
I left the office, I was an emergency administration and planning
major,” he says.
job was with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s division of
emergency management. Wells was assigned to the U.S. Department
of Energy’s nuclear weapons facility in Amarillo. He later worked
for the contractor that operated the plant.
focused on what would happen during a nuclear disaster,” Wells says.
than seven years with the public safety department, Wells joined
the Fort Worth/Tarrant County Emergency Management Office in March
“I was ready
for more variety, and I have it here,” he says.
1999, he assisted in response to mass shootings at Fort Worth’s
Wedgwood Baptist Church. He also served as the Y2K coordinator for
the Fort Worth Fire Department, dealt with the tornado in March
and coordinated damage assessment of floods in White Settlement
and other Tarrant County communities in June.
months, we seem to have a new disaster,” Wells says.
that the UNT program’s emphasis on concepts prepared him to respond
to the tornado.
taught to actually become a city emergency manager. Instead, I learned
ways to think and analyze situations. When I graduated, I was confident
that I could do any job,” he says.
In the first
hours following the tornado, Wells and the emergency management
staff feared many people were trapped in damaged buildings. They
sent out search and rescue teams, and city crews were sent out to
clear debris from streets.
By the morning
of March 30, the Emergency Operations Center had found no trapped
people, and the focus turned to managing access to the buildings,
routing traffic and securing funds for rebuilding homes and businesses.
As part of his job to help the city qualify for government disaster
assistance, Wells took federal and state officials on a preliminary
assessment tour of Fort Worth — the first step to a disaster declaration.
It was his first look at the widespread destruction.
“I was amazed
that more people were not killed or injured,” he says. “We had five
deaths, with only two directly from the tornado, and 95 injuries.
Only five of those injuries were serious.”
most people in the tornado’s path “did exactly what they were supposed
to do” — they sought safety in interior rooms and stairwells.
mistake people make is not learning how to be prepared,” he says.
“As early as 9 a.m. that day, radio stations said there was a good
chance for severe weather. With a tornado, you can’t wait until
the last minute to plan for shelter.”
Worth was declared a federal disaster area days after the tornado,
Wells felt a sense of achievement — particularly for the residents
of the low-income Linwood neighborhood.
to the residents and heard stories about what they had lost, and
it was sad. It made me want to help them so much more,” he says.
part of this job is helping people pick up their lives and start
over through giving them the assistance to rebuild.”