Faces Of The Boom: In McKenzie County, Emergencies Require Double Duty

McKenzie County emergency managers Karolin Rockvoy, left, and Jerry Samuelson, right, tour the tornado damage near Watford City, N.D., on Friday, May 30, 2014, with Homeland Security Division Director Greg Wilz. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – In her first three weeks on the job, the new McKenzie County emergency manager visited the National Weather Service, held a Skywarn training course and met with the Red Cross.

Karolin Rockvoy didn’t expect to apply what she learned so quickly, until an EF2 tornado struck an RV park south of Watford City last week.

“Then we put it all to work,” Rockvoy said.

McKenzie County recently expanded its emergency management and veteran services offices to two people. Jerry Samuelson, who has held those duties for 17 years, said the need to add more staff was primarily driven by oil-related incidents.

“When all the oil activity came in, we were running around with all the spills. We’ve had oil well blowouts,” Samuelson said. “That became a job all in itself.”

In addition, the emergency managers assist the sheriff and police departments, five rural fire departments and two ambulance services in the county, all of which have seen dramatic increases in calls for service.

While most North Dakota counties of comparable size have a half-time emergency manager, McKenzie County – where the state’s oil activity is most heavily concentrated – needs two people to handle it all, Samuelson said.

In addition, demand for veteran services has increased with the influx of new residents.

McKenzie County used to have about 550 veterans before the oil activity began, Samuelson said. He now knows of two oil industry businesses in Watford City that employ about 90 veterans on their own.

On Memorial Day, Samuelson and Rockvoy had their veteran services hats on in anticipation of a community service. Rockvoy didn’t like the look of the clouds, so she started calling the National Weather Service and they began the ceremony 20 minutes early.

They then had to switch gears and go into emergency management mode, when a tornado touched down and emergency responders raced to the scene.

Days after the storm, the two were already talking about changes the county needs to consider to require housing camps to have shelters and emergency plans.

“We have the next 30 to 90 days to educate people,” Rockvoy said. “We have a lot of RVs around here. I think we can use this as an educational thing.”

Samuelson said he used to be primarily concerned with the need for winter storm shelters for the out-of-state workers and families who live in RVs and temporary housing year-round. The tornado highlights the need for summer storm shelters as well, he said.

“There are places they can go, but it’s few and far between,” Samuelson said.

Expanding siren systems is another need for the county, Samuelson said. Watford City has one siren, which he said has always been hard to hear, but now the city limits have expanded. Communities such as Arnegard and Alexander also have housing camps beyond their city limits that wouldn’t be able to hear the sirens, he said.

While their attention was focused last week on extreme weather, protecting the county’s water and environment from oil-related spills will continue to be a major priority. Rockvoy said she’s especially concerned about spills that companies don’t report.

“When they don’t report spills, you wonder how much they really clean them up, too,” Rockvoy said.