Tuscaloosa—in the first 20 minutes after the April 27 tornado, it was reported that thousands of homes and buildings were in rubble. The city's busiest fire station was destroyed, along with a police precinct and most of the city's garbage/debris trucks. The Red Cross and Salvation Army had taken big hits, and the fortified center for the EMA was in ruins.
Power outage, gas leaks and water delivery failures only added to the profound sense of destruction and loss. Radio and telephone communication was critically disrupted, making the transfer of accurate information among emergency responders a serious challenge.
Tuscaloosa was better prepared than most, in large part because it had established an incident-command plan more than two years ago when a team of city officials returned from a week-long community-specific training course at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Md. When the forecast was made that the day's storm would be particularly dangerous, the command team assembled in the command post on the second floor of city hall and began tracking storms that might impact Tuscaloosa.
As the afternoon turned deadly, the command team took shelter and monitored the storm's rampage. Within moments after the storm passed, incident command was in place and coordinating the many functions needed to begin the process of emergency protective measures.
Search and rescue of many injured citizens was the first priority. Identification and elimination of hazardous conditions—clearing roadways to allow for the movement of emergency crews, gas leaks, downed power lines and the identification of unstable structures—came next.
As night fell, it was clear that it would be a long night to ensure all the citizens’ needs had been met. As the morning came, the total picture of destruction caused by the worst natural disaster in Alabama's history was clear not only to Tuscaloosa, but also to the entire world as the national media arrived to document the aftermath.
Water-tank levels begin to fall as the many damaged lines drained storage of firefighting reserves. Fire hydrants were obscured by large debris fields, street signs were absent in the affected areas and recognizable landmarks were missing, creating further challenges to responders.
Incident Command worked with Operations to coordinate task forces and strike teams of city resources (environmental services, transportation, police, fire, inspection, sewer and water) to complete the objectives outlined in daily briefings. Logistics worked to coordinate the many facility, equipment and contractual needs created by the storm. Finance tracked forced labor accounts and other expenditures to prepare for the long list of project worksheets that will follow as the recovery efforts move forward.
The community-specific emergency-management training had worked to give Tuscaloosa a glimpse into the challenges that would become a reality in this storm.
Are there lessons to be learned? Of course—we are, and should be, our harshest critic. This was a storm unequaled in memory and we were tested by its aftermath.
While we work our way through post-incident analysis meetings, we strive to never forget that the residents of Tuscaloosa have nothing but praise for our firefighters. Gifts of hot meals, children's thank you cards, personal notes and media coverage attest to their gratitude for medical care, swift and effective response in entrapments, road clearing, tarping of roofs and simple humanitarian aid to people in need.
A candlelight vigil in Tuscaloosa on June 1 honored the 42 victims who died in April's devastating tornado. Almost two months later, the pain is still very raw and parts of Tuscaloosa are virtually untouched, as brick, twisted metal and trashed vehicles still lie in tumbled piles throughout the storm's eight-mile path. However, there is resilience and a commitment to remain strong and be even better in the future.
Tilda Mims oversees Fire & Life Safety Education for the Tuscaloosa Fire & Rescue Service.