Staring at the just-released Tornado Recovery Action Council’s 116-page report, ”Cultivating a State of Readiness,” it is tempting to skip ahead to the five-page “In Summary” chapter that begins on page 94.
There, you will find the council’s 20 recommendations to help Alabama better prepare for the next major disaster, Gov. Robert Bentley’s charge to the council after the murderous April 27 tornadoes.
But the place to start is Chapter 1: “4.27.11,” a harrowing account of Alabama’s historic day of disaster. Even now, almost nine months later, it is hard to grasp the enormity of the destruction from the killer storm systems that roared through Alabama last April, spawning three waves of twisters over 18 hours.
Sixty-two tornadoes touched down that day — 25 more than struck Alabama during all of 2010. They killed 248 people and hurt more than 2,200 others, and damaged or destroyed almost 24,000 homes. The wreckage extended across 35 of the state’s 67 counties, with damage estimates in the billions of dollars.
Understand the awesome fury of those storms and the degree of devastation — and that more killer tornadoes will attack a state ranked No. 1 in tornado deaths over the past three decades — and you will understand the importance of the council’s recommendations and the need to put them in place as soon as possible. That is particularly true after tornadoes raked the state Monday, killing two people and damaging or destroying hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.
Last August, when the governor appointed 19 civic, community and business leaders from across the state to the tornado council, he said: “By deepening our understanding of this tragedy and its effects, we can improve our ability to prepare for and respond to a broad range of potential disasters.”
Bentley’s charge to the council, co-chaired by Pam Siddall, president and publisher of Birmingham News Multimedia, and Johnny Johns, president and CEO of Protective Life: Find ways to save lives, increase cooperation among agencies, improve the delivery of services and reduce the economic harm from future storms. The council’s 20 well-reasoned, common-sense recommendations meet that charge. (Read the report at the “Cultivating a State of Readiness” link above.) They are a call to action for state and local governments, emergency responders, utilities, nonprofits and businesses and, most important, Alabama residents.
While much went right in the aftermath of April 27 — heroic first-responders, fast-acting state and local officials, utilities quickly restoring services, massive volunteer efforts — there are lessons to learn that will allow Alabama to do better in the next major disaster. Everything starts with being well-prepared.
“In hoping for the best but getting ready for the worst, better preparation might be the strongest defense against future tornadoes,” the report said. “Better preparation can lead to fewer deaths, less property loss, a smoother transition back to normal and hopefully fewer ‘what ifs’ to consider after the next serious storms.”
Toward that end, the council recommended: increasing the number of storm shelters in Alabama, including requiring them in new mobile home parks and apartment complexes; tax incentives for safe rooms in new home construction; a new, tough, statewide building code for new, rebuilt and extensively remodeled homes; tax incentives to encourage businesses to buy generators; a campaign to raise public awareness; and an annual sales tax holiday on severe-weather emergency supplies.
The report also called for integrated and more geographically precise storm alerts than the current countywide warnings, which can promote complacency among residents who hear repeated warnings but are never threatened because they are not in the storms’ direct path. The council also said state and county governments and nonprofits should promote the use of weather radios, which need better technology to send area-specific warnings. Too, tornado research at Alabama’s universities should be expanded to help better understand the storms’ patterns and help people better prepare, the report said.
To improve disaster response, the tornado council suggested minimum training standards for local emergency management directors; updated communication plans and testing to ensure they work; unannounced mass casualty drills for emergency responders and hospitals; and better coordination of volunteers through the governor’s office and the state Emergency Management Agency.
The report also includes recommendations on postdisaster recovery. Among them: low-interest loans, grants and other help for rebuilding homes and businesses; and for local governments to approve pre-event contracts for debris removal and disposal.
Some recommendations may be viewed as controversial, such as putting into place a statewide building code with inspection and compliance requirements and enforcement teeth in a state where 60 of its 67 counties have no code. Plus, there will be concerns about cost. Yet, some storm fortifications add just several hundred dollars to the cost of new-home construction.
Tougher standards for building more storm-resistant homes would lower homeowners’ insurance costs, but more important is that they would save lives.
It mustn’t go unnoticed that Bentley received the report Tuesday as he toured tornado damage in Center Point from predawn storms that swept across Alabama Monday. We don’t have the luxury of waiting years to put into place the tornado council’s recommendations, nor should we use the excuse of saying some of them will cost money that state and local governments can’t spare.
The governor’s Tornado Recovery Action Council has come up with 20 strong recommendations that will ensure a better outcome the next time a major disaster strikes. The council said Bentley should create an ad hoc committee that would design a framework for putting its recommendations into place, “including projections of costs, funding sources, personnel and timelines.”
With tornado season starting in earnest in March, time is of the essence. We mustn’t waste it, or this opportunity.
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