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Urban Area Perspective: Tuscaloosa

02/09/2012 - David Hartin is the director of the Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency. He started his service to the community in 1974 as a volunteer with the Tuscaloosa County Civil Defense Department and was appointed to the Tuscaloosa Police Department in January 1976. As a sergeant, he was assigned to be the liaison between the police department and emergency management. Hartin graduated from the University of Alabama in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in commerce and business administration, after which he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. During his 30 years of service in the Army Reserve, he held six commands and several staff assignments. His commands included a transportation truck company, a terminal battalion, and a deployment support brigade. Hartin retired in June 2003 as a colonel. His military awards include the Legion of Merit and the Meritorious Service Medal. Hartin also holds a master of criminal justice degree from the University of Alabama. He is certified by the Alabama Association of Emergency Managers as an Advanced Level Emergency Manager and by Alabama EMA as a Certified Local Emergency Manager.

April’s tornados were devastating. Can you put them in context?

I’m a life-long resident of Tuscaloosa County, and since the early 1970s, I have been involved with most of the significant tornado events that have come through my county. When you look at the time period between April 25 and April 28 throughout the South, we had a tremendous number of tornados and storm damage. Currently, it ranks as the fifth worst tornado outbreak in U.S. history. On April 27, Alabama had 62 confirmed tornados. Four of those impacted Tuscaloosa County with two being classified EF-4 and two EF-3.

Over the years, we have experienced damage to homes and commercial sites, but none compare to what happened on April 27. I’ve heard some people compare the destruction caused by one of the April 27 EF-4 tornados to a war zone. It was rated as a high-end EF-4 with a damage path length of 80.68 miles and a maximum width of 1.5 miles. Over 7,000 structures were affected. Two thousand plus were destroyed. Eighteen hundred had moderate damage, and 3,100 had light damage. I recently talked to a resident whose home was damaged in the tornado. She told me that she had the only tree left in their neighborhood. Indeed, there are areas that you can see for miles because the trees that used to limit your vision are no longer there.

Considering your long career in emergency management, what really surprised you about the tornados?

Tuscaloosa had two separate tornado events on April 27. We had the two EF-3s that caused damage in the county during the early morning hours. Had it stopped there, it would have been a significant weather day. Then early in the afternoon, we were hit with the two EF-4s. The Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Operations Center was destroyed. If that was not bad enough, our community lost our Salvation Army facility, which is one of our primary shelters for the homeless. As the tornado tracked through our city, we also lost the West Alabama Red Cross chapter facility. Our operation and two critical nongovernmental organizations that are there with resources to help after the storm were some of the first victims of the afternoon storm.

 What can you do better next time considering what you learned from these tornados? How do you plan to be more resilient in the future?

We’ve talked quite a bit about “spreading our assets.” Our small department lost 100 percent of our response vehicles as well as our personal vehicles. We are also in the process of designing a replacement for our Emergency Operations Center. We are planning on a hardened facility with our backup power in a hardened structure as well. We are looking at multiple options for storing our emergency-response assets so they will not be in one place.

What is absolutely critical in your mind for redundancy?

We keep a lot of our documents on our servers, rather than on individual computers. However, if we lose access to the Internet, we lose our server. When we move to our new facility, we will have our server on site. About 50 percent of the computers in our office are laptops. This gives us the ability to move them to another location, connect to the Internet, and continue operations. Should the two means of hardwire access to the Internet fail, we have air cards to provide another way to connect to the Internet.

Another critical asset for communicating in a disaster is our SouthernLinc radios. These push-to-talk units allow us to talk to public safety, public works, hospital, state public health, Red Cross, and school officials, among others. In addition, these units have talk groups which enable a person to communicate to all group members at one time. SouthernLinc is also the primary way we communicate with our National Weather Service office. Many times we will have advanced warning from them that a tornado warning will be issued over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) All Hazard System. This gives us another means of verification prior to activating our Outdoor Warning System for the area included in the warning.

How did Tuscaloosa EMA interact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)?

I think what was done in Alabama will be a national model. In addition to a Joint Field Office (JFO) established in Birmingham, a mini JFO was established here. Tuscaloosa was the home of Division C, which served not only Tuscaloosa County but a number of other counties in our area. When we had a question, FEMA and state officials were available locally to assist us.

What were residents most unhappy with regarding the government response?

One of the challenges we’re dealing with now is the FEMA Individual Shelter Program, which subsidizes a homeowner’s shelter construction. There has been a lot of interest in the program, but the process is slow. After the application process at the local level, the state reviews the package and then FEMA. This can take months. If a grant is awarded, the applicant pays the full cost up front and applies for reimbursement of 75 percent of the cost up to $4,000. A number of people, however, have advised us that they cannot afford to pay the full cost of the shelter up front and wait for reimbursement.

Is there anything Tuscaloosa is doing to incentivize individual disaster preparedness?

Aside from helping residents apply for the shelter program, Alabama has pushed preparedness through programs, such as “Get Ten,” for a number of years. These are 10 essential items to have in your home in case of a disaster. While a home may not have an individual safe room that meets FEMA standards, it may have a safer area that people should go to during severe weather such as tornados. We encourage people to identify that and prepare.

How has Tuscaloosa involved its citizens in the recovery process?

There have been a number of community meetings to gather input from the community. In the City of Tuscaloosa, we have Tuscaloosa Forward, a strategic community plan to rebuild. And this process is helping citizens identify overlooked problems. For instance, the tornado destroyed a number of our old growth trees. So now we have a group working on ways to help people replant trees in their neighborhoods but in a responsible way. Some trees are quick to grow, but they do not hold up well in the wind. In addition, where you plant is also important. You need to stay away from your underground utilities, for example. After a storm, it is not uncommon for water or gas leaks to be attributed to pipes damaged when a tree is blown over due to high winds.