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October 23, 2014

THE NEXT STORM Three years after tornadoes, work remains on Alabama’s storm-preparedness to-do list

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Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2014 12:46 am | Updated: 1:45 am, Sun Jul 20, 2014.

More than three years after Alabama’s deadly tornado outbreak, nearly half the items on the state’s must-do list for severe weather preparedness remain unfinished — and there's no timetable for completing the work.

After the April 2011 storms killed 244 people across the state, Gov. Robert Bentley announced the creation of the Tornado Recovery Action Council. The now-disbanded panel proposed 20 recommendations for improving the state’s emergency response tactics in January 2012. According to Bentley’s office, only 13 of them have been completed so far.

Lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh of Anniston, said they were unaware of the proposals, but would be willing to work with the governor to get the remaining initiatives passed.

“Every recommendation that the governor had the authority to do at the state level has been done,” said Art Faulkner, director of the state Emergency Management Agency.

Some of the unfulfilled items on the list would require action from the Legislature. They include tax incentives that would encourage businesses to own electrical generators and install storm-proof safe rooms, tougher structural requirements for new buildings and new rules to require shelters at apartment complexes and mobile home parks.

Some storm victims say they’d like to see more being done.

“Just having recommendations out there is not enough,” said Shirley Walden, whose northern Calhoun County house in Webster’s Chapel sustained damage during a 2011 tornado. “They should follow through.”

Marsh said the undone items simply haven’t been brought to lawmakers for action.

“If it is in the works, then I will work with the governor to make sure it gets passed,” he said.

Marsh said he knew of no opposition to the measures still on the list. He said it’s typical for the governor to seek lawmakers to pass the items on his own agenda — and unusual for a legislator to pursue an item independently if the governor has already announced he’s pursuing it.

In an emailed statement sent by the Bentley’s press office, the governor was quoted as saying he’s pleased with the progress made so far.

“The recommendations in the TRAC report were carefully researched and we plan to implement as many of the recommendations as possible,” the statement read.

Repeated attempts to reach Blaine Galliher, the Bentley aide who served as legislative director from mid-2012 until last month, were unsuccessful.

Richard Fording, professor and chair in the University of Alabama’s department of political science, said the recommendations are competing with many other proposals that crowd the legislative agenda each year.

“I don’t know if Gov. Bentley has made a significant effort to push these proposals in the Legislature,” Fording said in an email. “He may be choosing to use his limited political capital for other priorities.”

Fording said that other unfulfilled recommendations would impose significant costs on one party or another — for example, a change to construction codes leads to increased costs for builders. “Mandates from state government are generally not welcomed by local governments, especially when they do not come with funding,” Fording added.

‘Take their advice’

In the months after the storm, the 19-member recovery council studied what the state could do to better prepare for the next major storm outbreaks. On the panel were executives from major Alabama businesses such as Regions Bank and Protective Life Insurance Co., officials from cities hit by the storm, hospital administrators and representatives of nonprofits.

In four and half months of consultation and seven public forums, the panel sought insight from researchers, weather experts, government officials, response coordinators, experienced builders and other leaders. It produced a report that recounted the April 27 outbreak hour by hour, twister by twister and community by community — all building up to the 20 recommendations the panel made for future storm readiness.

When the report was released, Bentley said he would put the plans into motion, starting with the building of public safe rooms and encouragement for more cities to adopt emergency disaster plans.

“I do not believe that we should ask people to do a job, like we have this council, and not take their advice,” Bentley said.

More than two years after the report’s release, state officials point to some concrete progress. State money has paid for new public shelters in buildings across Alabama — enough, EMA director Faulkner said, to hold at least 50,000 people in an emergency.

So far, 4,000 individual safe rooms and about 250 community safe rooms have been installed, and an additional 200 community safe rooms should be implemented by the end of the year, Faulkner said.

The council’s recommendations called simply for more shelters, but didn’t specify a numerical goal.

“I am very happy that the recommendations that have been completed and that we continue to work on them,” Faulkner said.

State agencies have also upgraded weather alert systems to include the ability for residents to receive text, email and telephone warnings, state officials say. The construction of a new $7 million weather research facility at the University of Alabama in Huntsville completed the council’s resolution to promote the study of tornado formation and atmospheric conditions, the governor’s office said.

“This will help take us to another level in terms of our research,” said Ray Garner, UAH spokesman. “Hopefully, what we do will save lives.”

Perhaps the most visible of the 13 completed recommendations is a statewide sales tax holiday on storm supplies. Modeled on the annual August sales tax holiday for school supplies, the tax holiday sets aside one weekend in February to allow people to buy storm-prep items such as batteries and generators without paying sales tax.

A work in progress

Still, other recommended tax incentives for storm preparation — including a proposed tax credit for businesses to buy backup generators — remain on the drawing board.

Denise Rucker, a volunteer management coordinator with Calhoun County’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, said that acquiring generators businesses could use during power outages should be at the top of legislators’ to-do list.

It is particularly important for grocery stores to continue operating for 72 hours after a tornado, she said. Emergency responders often encounter fallen trees and other roadblocks that initially impede the delivery of supplies.

She said that grocery stores that lose power during these times lose a significant amount of stock, meaning that merchandise won’t be available to nearby residents who also have power outages.

The state’s emergency management director agrees.

“Some people, their homes are destroyed,” Faulkner said “It can be days before we can get people in a situation where they do have access to food.”

Talking codes

The governor’s panel did, in fact, recommend that the state set up statewide building codes intended to make newly constructed buildings more storm-worthy than the state’s current housing stock.

“Some of the damage suffered on April 27 was preventable with design techniques that are relatively inexpensive,” the panel’s report stated, adding that it “is imperative that the state use this event as a springboard to save lives in the future with better-fortified housing.”

Alabama’s first statewide set of minimum fortification standards went into effect in 2012 — but those standards were approved in 2009, and brought Alabama up to a nationwide minimum seen in states that aren’t hurricane- and tornado-prone. No new, higher standards have been approved since the 2011 storms or the panel’s report. Jason Reid, regulatory affairs director with the Alabama Home Builders Association, said the Alabama Energy and Residential Codes Board is in the process of developing additional fortification requirements.

State Rep. Christopher England, a Democrat from storm-ravaged Tuscaloosa, said there are basic steps — such as tie-downs and new ways of attaching shingles to roofs — that can help houses withstand high winds.

“After the tornado, we discovered that some homes were destroyed, not because they were directly hit, but that debris of older homes with older construction flew off and caused damage in other places,” England said.            

Anne Williamson, a political science professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in housing policy, said that enforcing codes outside cities is often problematic because of a lack of government workers in rural areas.

Williamson said similarly storm-prone states such as Florida, have statewide building codes that cover more than baseline standards. She said the construction codes introduced in Florida after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew led to big improvements in buildings being able to withstand high winds and other harsh conditions, including the now-required hurricane shutters in some areas along the state’s coastline.

Given that Alabama experiences both tornadoes and hurricanes, the state needs to step up its standards, she said.

“It seems to me we actually should be in a leadership position in terms of disaster preparedness, not lagging behind,” Williamson said.

The timetable

Ron Gray, a member of the recovery council, said the panel proposed a mix of simple and complex resolutions, some that could be implemented reasonably quickly and some that would require more time.

“I think, given the complexity of the subject and the massive nature of it, it’s actually a nice number of completed topics,” Max Michael, another council member, said. “I think it’s moving well.”

He added that legislation for the seven unfinished recommendations will be a long process.

“Unless somebody takes it on and champions it, it’s not going to go anywhere,” Michael said. “So making sure that the recommendations remain in the public eye is going to be important.”

 

IN BRIEF: What’s been done

Sales tax holiday: In 2012, the state established the last weekend in February as a tax holiday for storm supplies. A list of tax-exempt items is available at http://www.revenue.alabama.gov/salestax/WPSalesTaxHol.cfm.

Storm shelters: Officials say 250 community safe rooms have been built since the storm.

Disaster response group for utilities: An executive order from the governor created the Alabama Utility Workgroup for Disaster Response, which hosts and annual conference on disaster readiness.

Awareness campaign: In 2012, the state launched the Ready Alabama (www.readyalabama.gov) campaign to increase storm preparedness.

Alert system: Less than a year after the storm, the state set up SAF-T-Net (www.alabamasaftnet.com), a system that uses e-mail, texts and phone calls to alert people of storms approaching their area.

Serve Alabama: Before the storms, the governor was planning to reorganize the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives into a broader agency to coordinate volunteer organizations. It’s now operating as Serve Alabama: www.servealabama.gov.

Tornado research: The state provided $7 million for the creation of the Severe Weather Institute and Radar and Lightning Laboratories in Huntsville: swirll.uah.edu.

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