Tuscaloosa Tornado lessons taught at Harvard

Dec 4, 2013

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox spoke at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government today about the city's response to the April 27, 2011 tornado. I sat down with the Mayor just before he headed to the Boston area. Maddox says no disaster plan could have covered every challenge Tuscaloosa faced that day...

Walt Maddox: Well, I think the, obviously, each disaster has its own unique set of circumstances, so it’s never apples to apples, but there’s some key ingredients that you will, or key components that you will find in every disaster, and one is being prepared to meet that challenge. Number two, is what do you do in those first few hours to organize your response? Not only in terms of getting people out there, but how do you begin staging logistical backup that’s gonna be needed to [feed], clothe, and shelter thousands upon thousands of either national guardsmen or volunteers? All of those components we had in place pretty quickly that was able to get us through the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours, which is critical.

Pat Duggins: Is there anything, looking back, that you would have done differently that you would have done differently in terms of planning or execution?

Maddox: There’re hundreds of things that we would do differently. Probably the biggest, one of the biggest mistakes that we made was assuming that every part of our disaster management response would be there when we needed it. We never tried to do a scenario that had us losing a fire station, or losing a police station, or losing about twenty percent or our heavy equipment, or losing ten percent of our fleet. We also didn’t have a scenario in place that had us losing the American Red Cross and Salvation Army. And so you can imagine that when we were responding in the first few hours after the tornado, we were having to adapt pretty quickly in trying to respond about those resources. I think the other thing that we underestimated, and a lot of it had to do with losing the Red Cross, and the EMA, and the Salvation Army, was what to do with volunteers and how to strategically align those volunteers into our disaster area.

Pat: Let me make an observation, followed by a question. My wife and I live in The Downs neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, which was one of the areas hit by the storm, not as hard as others, but it got hit. Within twenty-four hours, you had waves of college kids handing out bag lunches or clearing tree limbs with chain saws, and if you look at post disaster news coverage in other parts of the country, there doesn’t seem to be that neighbor helping neighbor philosophy. How much of that makes Tuscaloosa’s experience unique and not transferable to other parts of the country?

Maddox: Well, I think it has its, it’s a very good question, and it’s one I thought a lot about. First of all, I think it’s just part of our southern hospitality to help our neighbors, and we have less reliance on government in the south culturally than maybe other parts of the nation. So, I think it’s very instinctive of us just to not wait on someone to come help us, we go out and help our neighbors. So, I think that had a lot to do with that response. Number two, is that we were able, within the first twenty-four hours, we created an environment where you had very little lawlessness. It didn’t mean it was perfect across the twelve and a half percent of the city, but for the most part, there was law and order. Which then allows volunteers to feel free to come in and to be able to help their fellow neighbor, and I think that played a major role in it. The other thing too, though, helped, was we had very good coordination with our utilities, so most of the time we were able to get volunteers staged in areas where we didn’t have a lot of utility relocation going on.

Pat: As we start to wrap up, Mr. Mayor, what is the silliest question that you keep getting asked about the tornado?

Maddox: Where did we hide all the bodies? As morbid as that sounds, I will still, from time to time be told, you know, that we didn’t give the exact fatality count or we were hiding bodies in certain areas of the city, to keep people from feeling hopeless. You know, and I just shake my head and think there’s, you know, that’s, without a doubt, one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard. But yet, you know, there’s still some people that believe that to be true, which is obviously the farthest thing from the truth itself.

Pat: Last question, Mr. Mayor, this class at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard is full of what may be future governmental leaders. What do you hope they take away from today’s talk?

Maddox: Well, I hope they, number one, take away what a community can do when it comes together, and how petty our differences look when we’re all pushed up against the wall and we need to help our fellow citizens. Number two, as the future leaders in this country, I hope they will look at preparation as a way to respond to a disaster. You shouldn’t wait till your community has had an EF-5 tornado rip through it or has had a chemical spill. We need to have our cities and counties prepared in advance of it, and my hope is that they will do that and not have a reliance that we’ve got to wait on the federal and state government to do it for us. I think if we can do that, we will have made a difference.