STORM SHELTERS & SAFE ROOMS
Increase the number of storm shelters available to the public and publicize their locations so people know where to go when severe weather approaches. There aren’t enough storm shelters, and people often don’t know about them. That should be corrected. More shelters — either those specifically designed to withstand fierce winds and flying debris or other structures where taking refuge improves chances of surviving killer storms — should be designated where they already stand, built where none currently serve and publicized better.
Offer incentives to add safe rooms to new construction as well as existing homes and businesses. Structurally reinforced safe rooms for sheltering in place greatly enhance chances of survival and should be cornerstones of tornado preparedness. A tax credit incentive could be modeled on other successful programs that reward, for example, the purchase of energy-efficient HVAC systems, windows, insulation or solar panels.
Work with industry representatives to require that community storm shelters be included at any new apartment complexes and mobile home communities built in tornado-prone regions, and offer incentives for adding them to existing facilities. More should be done to promote tornado safety in densely populated residential areas, such as apartment complexes, and communities with structures prone to serious damage from tornadoes. Requiring or offering incentives for shelter construction would help save lives.
Establish statewide fortification standards for construction of new, rebuilt and extensively remodeled homes to save lives and property when tornadoes or other forms of severe weather move through Alabama; provide in the code inspection procedures and enforcement rules that apply statewide. Away from the coast, many new and rebuilt homes in Alabama are not subject to building codes with fortification standards that could help them withstand high winds. Some of the damage suffered on April 27 was preventable with design techniques that are relatively inexpensive. Implementing statewide fortification standards would provide greater safety and could mitigate increases in homeowner insurance costs due to violent weather.
Create the “Alabama Utility Workgroup for Disaster Response,” an industry group composed of representatives from electricity, natural gas, telecommunications and water providers, whose purpose is to share best practices and improve disaster planning and preparedness. Communication among utilities before, during and after severe weather is critical. The governor by executive order should establish a working group to improve the state’s utility infrastructure, enhance communication among utility providers, streamline state-led efforts on infrastructure coordination and share best practices.
Provide incentives for businesses that purchase generators and/or design or rewire their facilities to accommodate generators as temporary power solutions. Having more generators available to supply temporary power and having more essential services wired to accommodate mobile generators would solve many problems during the immediate aftermath of major storms. To improve readiness for weather emergencies, a proliferation of generators and generator hookup capacity should be encouraged through tax incentives.
Launch an ongoing awareness campaign that educates Alabamians about how to prepare for a natural disaster and about resources available when disasters strike. Alabama needs a statewide and ongoing disaster awareness campaign. If people were more aware of tornadoes and more familiar with steps to take to survive them, fewer people would die or suffer serious injuries.
Establish an annual sales tax holiday on certain items related to severe-weather preparedness to raise awareness and promote readiness. One good way to promote storm readiness is to get the right supplies and tools into the hands of people who may need them during a severe-weather emergency, and one good way to do that is to offer a sales tax holiday on key items. Such a pause in collecting sales taxes, for a day or a weekend, could take place in late April to tie in with increased news coverage surrounding the anniversary of Alabama’s worst tornado strikes or sometime in September, National Preparedness Month.
INTEGRATED AND PRECISE STORM ALERTS
Implement a statewide, integrated severe-weather alert system that provides more-precise alerts for individuals and businesses than current countywide warnings, allows individuals to enroll phone numbers, and takes advantage of smartphone technologies. Far too often, Alabamians are complacent about weather warnings. To change this mindset, the state should adopt an integrated, statewide severe-weather alert system that complements the warning methods used by both the National Weather Service and broadcast meteorologists. Such a system would use the latest available radar information and technology to deliver more timely and precise alerts through sirens, land lines, cell phones, electronic message boards and other means. An aggressive sign-up campaign would be launched to give people an opportunity to enroll for the alerts.
Push for the development of technology to transmit localized warnings through weather radios. Promote their use and upkeep, and develop a system to purchase and distribute them, with a priority focus on Alabama’s special-needs population. Weather radios are useful in alerting people to an approaching storm, but the technology needs to be improved. National Weather Service warnings are transmitted to the radios with a countywide code, and thus the radios sound on a countywide basis, not just in the area under threat. The Weather Service should develop the technology to send area- specific warnings to weather radios. The state and counties should work with nonprofits and others to promote the use of weather radios and distribute them to the homebound and other special-needs populations.
Pursue funding to conduct academic research in Alabama on the factors responsible for the generation and maintenance of tornadoes in order to better understand the conditions that produce, strengthen and direct tornadoes; research focus would include the relative importance of topography, differential surface roughness and gravity waves. Tornadoes are a fact of life in Alabama, but better knowledge of their patterns and destructive force can help people better prepare. At some of Alabama’s universities, scientists and engineers have been conducting research along those lines. Such research should be expanded and given the necessary funding.
EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT TRAINING
Require more accountability by establishing minimum standards and better training for county EMA directors. Conduct a needs assessment of each county EMA. During times of disaster, Alabama depends upon a network of emergency management agency directors in every county, but there are no minimum standards for the position and no required training. That should be corrected. A standard should be adopted, and county EMA directors should be better trained in the National Incident Management System. In addition, each county EMA should assess emergency needs to determine strengths and weaknesses so they can better prepare for and respond to the next disaster.
Emergency response agencies should keep updated local tactical interoperable communications plans and train personnel in those standards. All exercises should include communication elements to ensure that these plans work in the field. Communications can be difficult during and after a disaster because of a multitude of different radios and protocols among emergency response agencies. Having a good plan in place beforehand can minimize confusion and save lives. Every emergency response agency should have such a plan, and the plans should be tested to ensure they work when the next disaster strikes.
Conduct unannounced regional and multiregional mass casualty drills for the triage and transportation of patients from disaster areas; focus on the use of the National Incident Management System. Some hospitals were overloaded with patients and others were underutilized during the April 27 disaster. Emergency response agencies should do a better job of routing injured disaster victims to appropriate hospitals so no single hospital is overwhelmed. To ensure that this system of triage and transfer works correctly, unannounced drills should be conducted statewide so first responders know how to effectively send patients outside local jurisdictions when necessary.
Move forward with plans by the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to rebrand the office as Serve Alabama, and more clearly state its mission of coordinating volunteer services. Before the April 27 disaster, the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was reorganizing into an agency focused clearly upon coordinating volunteers and volunteer agencies. The disaster showed what a big job that can be and what gaps there were in volunteer coverage in some areas of the state.
Elevate a VOAD leader to a high-level position within the state EMA command structure, and increase the number of VOAD chapters with the goal of one for each county. Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is a volunteer organization created to organize volunteers. The state Emergency Management Agency had been working with VOAD closely before the April 27 disaster, but the storm showed the critical need for VOAD. The state should cement the relationship with state VOAD and utilize the organization’s unique ability to coordinate individual volunteers and volunteer groups.
Establish a nonprofit organization to seek federal and private funds for a statewide program offering low-interest loans and other financial assistance to build homes and construct or expand businesses after disasters. A nonprofit geared to assist in long-term disaster recovery across Alabama could be modeled after the Gulf Coast Renaissance Corp., which has used innovative programs to boost housing and the economy on the Mississippi Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Along with getting 501(c)(3) status to help finance disaster-area housing programs, the Alabama nonprofit should also seek to become a Community Development Financial Institution. As a CDFI, it can seek grants from the U.S treasury and private foundations to aid business development in underserved areas.
Coordinate with the Alabama Housing Finance Authority to maximize the use of its funds to provide low-interest mortgages to qualified homebuyers and to provide multifamily housing for low-income residents in disaster areas. Federal funds handled by the AHFA could be targeted to tornado-stricken communities in Alabama. If necessary, the governor could ask the AHFA board to set aside a portion of its funds for disaster housing over the next several years.
Provide incentives for businesses to rebuild or expand through loans, grants and tax credits. Three programs that could serve as possible models offer eligible businesses zero-interest loans, with a provision that the loan can be forgiven; allocate grants for disaster-related recovery costs not covered by federal or other sources; and provide investment tax credits for businesses damaged in a disaster. After storms and flooding in 2008, Iowa offered zero-interest loans that could be forgiven if the business reopened by a certain date, and it provided direct grants to businesses from state-allocated funds; the amount distributed in a given area for both programs was based on the percentage of federal assistance a disaster area received. Kansas, after tornadoes and flooding in 2007, launched a three-year program offering various tax credits and refunds for business investments in its disaster areas; the state’s obligation was capped at $5 million in each of the three years.
Local governments should prepare pre-event contracts for debris removal and disposal that require compliance with all environmental guidelines. Clearing away wreckage and debris is a crucial step for communities to begin recovering from disasters. But many local governments in Alabama do not prepare contracts in advance for vendors to haul off the debris and for landfills to receive it. Using state Emergency Management Agency guidelines, municipalities and counties should approve pre-event contracts to avoid possible delays and inflated costs amid the chaos after disaster strikes.