Sunday marked three years since a deadly tornado struck Tuscaloosa killing dozens and leaving a lasting mark on the city. Efforts to build back have been slow and deliberate with an emphasis not on rebuilding Tuscaloosa but a better Tuscaloosa. The city has marked the anniversary with a week of events highlighting the progress made in the past 36 months. APR’s Ryan Vasquez spoke with Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox about the rebuilding process and some of the challenges that exist today three years after the storm.
Walt Maddox: So, much of the past year has been spent on putting the engineering projects in place. We identified, through the Tuscaloosa Forward project, 41 infrastructure or housing projects to redevelop our city. We’ve completed 9. So, we’re about 25% through. Then getting the funding and the engineering into play over the past two years was a phenomenal accomplishment. When we got started we didn’t have one dime. And so, putting together one hundred million dollars has not been an easy endeavor, especially in a post-recessionary environment and a Congress who didn’t have the resources they’ve had in recent years.
Ryan Vasquez: What have some of the challenges been in this process? What are some of the obstacles in keeping the progress going?
Maddox: Well, it’s been, no doubt, the biggest challenge in my professional career. And, some of the biggest challenges have been funding. Second, it’s dealing with 5,000 different property owners who all have so many unique concerns. The majority of those properties that were impact were rentals, and with a median income rental of $25,000. In many cases, we had properties that were impacted by floodways. Many were built prior to the 1960’s, which mean they were non-conforming with 40 years of local, state, and federal laws. So, dealing with all those issues, on top of an infrastructure system that to say the least was old, and in need of massive upgrades. So, it’s not as easy as saying we’ll go back and rebuild, because quite frankly you couldn’t have done that anyway because there wasn’t the infrastructure to support it. Working through all those issues, has a challenge. But the good news is that by taking the long-view, of building strategic, and doing what we said we do…how many times have we seen governments come up with a master plan and leave it on the shelf? We’ve taken this master plan and already implemented 25% of it, and that’s astonishing when you think we didn’t have a dime to pay for it.
Ryan: This will be a different looking Tuscaloosa compared what people what three years and a day before.
Maddox: Absolutely. We’re working to elevate ourselves, and that doesn’t come from City Hall. That comes from people we work for, they demanded it. They’ve been through Hell and back. They wanted us to live up to our potential. On April 26, 2011 we had many communities impacted by the tornadoes that were not living up to the high standards set by the community, and they wanted better. And, I’m proud that they let us implement the “Tuscaloosa Forward” plan and people are beginning to see the long lasting impact—stronger, smarter, safer. That’s what we’re working for every single day and we’re starting to see it come to fruition.
Ryan: I know we’re taking a look at the long view here. Is there any community, city, or town, that came back from a natural disaster that you’re kind of modeling Tuscaloosa’s progress on theirs.
Maddox: First of all, it’s impossible to compare cities. You look at Joplin (Missouri) for example, we’re going through the same issues we’re going through. But you can’t compare one with the other because of the socio-economic data or the infrastructure data. It’s very difficult and it’s never appropriate to compare. But, that being said, for us it’s learning the lessons of communities that didn’t build back well. In those communities that we examined after April 27th, it was because there wasn’t the long-view, they didn’t take the opportunity look at infrastructure, they didn’t take the opportunity to look at zoning, and they didn’t take at a look at zoning, and they didn’t take a look at how do we transform communities that were not living up to their potential, and they regretted it because you can’t undo it, there is no reset button. And I was glad that our community understood that, and embraced it and really propelled city government to take the long view. So, for us it was more or less looking at places that didn’t rebuild as good as they could after a catastrophe.
Editor's Note: This Sunday, journalism students at the University of Alabama will unveil a website with links to news stories and eyewitness accounts of the April 27, 2011 storm. The APR newsroom collaborated on the project by providing audio reports from that day. A link to the student site will be posted on apr.org on Sunday