On April 27, Robert Bentley’s 100th day in office as governor of Alabama, more than 50 tornadoes slammed the state, killing 243 people, severely damaging or destroying more than 15,000 homes and causing property damage estimated at between $2 billion and $5 billion. It was the deadliest tornado day since the 1925 Tri-State tornadoes and one of the costliest natural disasters in history.
Bentley earned praise for his leadership and decisive nature in response to the storms. Emergency Management magazine sat down with Bentley in August to discuss the state’s
response to the tornadoes and the ongoing recovery efforts.
How are the people of Alabama doing?
The people are doing really well. We had unprecedented cooperation between the locals, state and federal government. Everybody stepped up and took a leadership role, and because of that, things have gone very well.
When we saw this coming, we knew it was going to be bad, and we immediately declared a state of emergency the morning when the first tornado hit.
By that afternoon when all of the tornadoes hit, I knew we were going to have security problems so I immediately called out our National Guard. And that really calmed things down in areas where there was no security.
We [also] challenged our local officials, our local Emergency Management Agency people, to take a leadership role, and they really stepped up. We had our volunteer organizations, and of course, we had our normal good volunteer people: churches — the Baptists were tremendous, the Seventh-day Adventists — the Red Cross and Salvation Army. We had all of those people early on.
I told FEMA that the governor is in charge of a disaster. They sent out about 20,000 letters [to citizens whose houses were damaged or destroyed], but the first sentence said, “Your FEMA claim has been rejected.” But if you read the letter completely, it said, “It may be rejected because you have insurance, or you have not done this or that.”
I read some of those letters and they were very insensitive to people who were hurting. I told [FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer] Mike Byrne that I didn’t want any more of those letters sent out to people in Alabama. They put together what they call a “tiger team” and it took them two to three weeks, but they redesigned all of the letters and brought them to me to approve them. Hopefully that will help people in the next emergency because they made them more sensitive to people who are going through difficult times.
Is there anything you would change in dealing with FEMA?
I really think that if a governor will take a leadership role, FEMA will do what they like to do and that is come in and assist. They have cookie-cutter-type approaches to things, but I can’t say anything but good things about FEMA. We asked for an emergency declaration and they gave that to us.
Photo: Bentley assured locals that the state would pick up the costs of recovery for the first 30 days. Photo courtesy of Jamie Martin /Alabama Governor’s Office
One obstacle I saw is [that] the locals were somewhat frozen because they were worried about paying their 25 percent because they don’t have any money either. The federal government was going to pay 75 percent and the local agencies had to pay part of the 25 percent, but they didn’t know how much of that 25 percent [the state] was going to make them pay.
I told the locals to quit worrying about it for 30 days, that the state would pick up the total amount. We didn’t have the money, but that got them moving. We just removed that obstacle so they would get started.
We also encouraged them to use the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps is obviously more expensive, but they do everything and they also know all the rules and regulations.
We asked the president and the [U.S.] Department of Homeland Security if they would pick up 90 percent and let us pick up 10 percent, and they agreed to that. When you reach a certain level retroactively, they pick that up anyway, but obviously we had not reached that level in Alabama. Right now it would be $607 million.
Twice I asked them to do that. The first time they did it for 30 days and the second time they did it from July 12th to the 15th. I asked them to extend it and knew they weren’t going to extend it any further. But basically everything I asked them to do they did and so I cannot be critical of FEMA. I think that they have done an excellent job in Alabama.
How do you facilitate the recovery of the business community?
The [U.S. Small Business Administration] came in and set up in every area to help with small business loans. We also did some things to facilitate that with some of our manufacturing jobs. For instance, up at Hackleburg, where an EF5 tornado totally destroyed the town, we worked with the Wrangler plant there to not only save the 150 jobs in that small town, but because of the incentives and the package that we put together, we talked them into expanding to 200 jobs. That was one industry that we felt we had to save because if we did not save Wrangler, then Hackleburg would have disappeared.
Tuscaloosa had 1,000 businesses that were destroyed and 7,500 jobs were lost. But many of those have already started reopening and after their long-term plan for the city takes place, then those will be rebuilt and most of them had insurance. We did see a spike in our unemployment [in July], and I expect it to a go a little higher [in September].
It has been estimated that we will have about 50,000, at least temporary, jobs because of this rebuilding effort, and if that takes place it will bring our unemployment rate — which is at 9.9 percent — down to probably 7 percent. A lot of those are temporary jobs, but longtime permanent jobs will increase because there is stimulation in the economy with all the rebuilding taking place.
In terms of the citizens and more than 1,500 homes lost, are residents getting the help they need, both the insured and uninsured?
I think that they are. The second or third day I had all the major insurance CEOs come to my office down here. I told them, “You have to be responsive to your policy holders, and you have to do everything you can to make sure they get the money they deserve or the money they have in their policy. And you have to try to get them back into some housing.”
FEMA has been very good about providing not only money for temporary places to live, but also some temporary housing. We didn’t have to use a lot of the trailers that we thought we would.
Talk about the benefits and drawbacks of social media during the disaster.
This was the first major disaster [in Alabama] where social media played a huge role, not only with volunteers but also donations. We talked about how that is a good thing and a bad thing. Somebody could tweet that they need diapers at the shelter on 15th Street and then all of a sudden 20 trucks show up with 100 cases of diapers and they only needed 10.
Do you feel that the warning systems were adequate?
No, I don’t think they were. I don’t think that the warning systems work really well because I don’t think people pay any attention to them. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on sirens and warning systems. People get immune to those things to the point that they just don’t pay attention to them.
Is there anything that you’d do differently in terms of the response or trying to notify people?
No, I think that we did a good job as far as the notification. Honestly I thought that we would have 2,000 people dead, not 250. The warning systems — not the sirens but TV and radio — did a great job, and people were very tuned in with what was going on that day, or it would have been a lot worse.
What advice do you have for other governors concerning their role in emergency management?
First of all, everything is local so you challenge your local leaders to take a leadership role. Also, as far as leadership is concerned, you have to act decisively and quickly.
One of the most important things I did was call in 3,000 National Guard troops and put them all over the state; because [of that] I am positive that the crime rate went down.
Does Alabama have a disaster relief fund? And what do you think about that concept?
We do not as a state have a disaster relief fund, but as a governor I have a disaster relief fund. Right now we are in the long-term recovery mode. We already had in place what we need under ADECA [Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs], which is part of our government where all the CDBG [Community Development Block Grants] flow through and all the other federal grants flow through that. I put ADECA as the lead agency.
Under the governor’s faith-based initiative group, I have what is called the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund. It is run by United Way — I don’t personally run it, but I can make suggestions about where the money goes — people can donate to it and we have raised about $5 million. That is going to be long term, we are going to use part of it to help save Wrangler in Hackleburg — that was part of the money that I promised that company to help them with their capital improvements.
Is this event going to define your governorship?
I think that we have already been defined. I think most people think that we have been doing a decent job — at least our approval ratings show that. It defines you, and you will be remembered by that.
How did Virtual Alabama help?
Through that GIS platform, we can tell where the most damage is done. We were able to do a quick damage assessment off the partial information from Virtual Alabama. They used that to help expedite the declarations without going out and physically doing the damage assessments.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report on lessons learned from the Joplin, Mo., tornado tragedy in May, when 159 people died and more than 1,000 were injured.
A NOAA assessment team was sent to Joplin after the tornado to examine the warning and forecast services provided and warning communications, community preparedness and the public’s response to tornado warnings.
The team interviewed more than 100 Joplin residents and found that response to warnings is complex and involves many variables, such as risk perception, overall credibility of warnings and warning communications. The team came up with the following recommendations:
NOAA will implement the recommendation as early as possible. The tornado was the single deadliest tornado in history since record-keeping began in 1950. The EF5 tornado was a mile wide and traveled 22 miles on the ground.