Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 1, 2011

In Tuscaloosa: “What is the plan?”

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 1, 2011

Following is the lead editorial in the Sunday edition of the Tuscaloosa News. The issues outlined are specific to that community and this crisis. The issues below are also recurring aspects of catastrophe preparedness. The specifics are beyond predicting. But catastrophic potential can be anticipated. It is helpful to do so before the crisis hits.


Even as teams of volunteers, municipal crews and contractors with heavy equipment begin to clear the rubble that remains of a mile-wide, six-mile-long swath of Tuscaloosa, and thousands of people begin to pick up the wreckage the tornado made of their lives, so much — still — is up in the air.

Who are the dead?

Where are the missing?

Where will we house the homeless?

What is the plan?

Every disaster is different. There is no easy template for a response. We have confidence that Mayor Walt Maddox, county Emergency Management director David Hartin, and their staffs are hard at work to find answers.

They admit this won’t be easy. After all, we lost a police precinct and fire station in Alberta, the city’s Environmental Services building, the Emergency Management Agency headquarters, and agency headquarters for the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Not to mention schools and major thoroughfares. These all would otherwise play significant roles in recovery plans.

As the mayor has said, it is like having both arms tied behind your back.

Volunteers are essential, and clearly the community has a huge heart for jumping in with work, money, blood donations, clothes and sundries. We need to sustain that effort.

The leadership of our local officials and the professionalism of our police officers, firefighters, utility workers, road and maintenance crews are crucial, and much appreciated.

But we need more.

The focus has shifted from rescue to recovery of victims, and it must begin to shift again from sorting through the rubble to rebuilding lives. This will be long, difficult road.

The visit by President Barack Obama on Friday signaled the federal government has taken notice at the highest levels. As of Friday, there was expectation Tuscaloosa may be visited by at least one member of the president’s Cabinet today. Officials from FEMA have been in town almost since the tornado left.

The response so far has been well coordinated, but assistance to displaced families must be more direct and substantial, and it is needed right away. Some of those being released after treatment of injuries at DCH Regional Medical Center, for instance, have lost everything, even to the clothing they were wearing before they were rushed to the hospital. Where do they go?

One of the terrible features of Wednesday’s unprecedented fury is that it descended on neighborhoods where the most vulnerable among us had lived. Many of the survivors have little or no resources to draw upon.

Turning government funding and private donations into tangible assistance, fast and efficiently, is notoriously difficult. And still it must be done.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 1, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

I could be cynical and say what’s new about this situation since Alabama has a fair number of tornadic disasters and ones caused by other hazards. But hey lets not be cynical about the response and recovery but just about the preparedness effort when the entirety of the Congressional delegation of ALABAMA voted to reduce by 1/2 the ability of NOAA to forecast tornadic activity. Perhaps as they tour the disaster area these politicians most if not all Republicans could explain the reasoning behind their vote to the interested survivors. You can pay US now or pay US later as the FRAM oil filter ad used to state.

But maybe Alabama and FEMA are lucky since now comparisons to Japanese efforts to respond and recovery continue to indicate years not weeks or months. 5 years for debris removal for example is the current estimate.

But it did concern me to learn of dead victims of the tornadoes being stacked in refrigerated trucks without even being covered by body bags.

With advent of 24/7/365 news and now web 2.0 it does get tougher to hide problems during disaster response and recovery efforts.

And since current law requires recovery to only pre-disaster levels of code and other requirements perhaps the Alabama delegation could immediate lead the charge to ensure rebuilding is to the most modern of codes concerning tornadoes and hurricanes. Like the chicken and egg the next disaster for Alabama might just be lurking in the Hurricane SEASON that begins June 1, 2011.

Sympathy for all families with losses of members and of injured members. And regret the property losses and wonder how much insured.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 2, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

Noting for the record the statutory mandates on DHS and FEMA for a long-term recovery strategy and disaster housing strategy have not been accomplished despite their assignment in October 2006 by PKEMA.

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