Alabama tornado outbreak: preparedness and response

It's not easy to prepare an entire city for a mile-wide tornado like the one that hit Tuscaloosa in Alabama. That makes individual preparedness – and rescue and recovery – especially important. Obama will tour the area Friday.

On the phone with reporters this morning, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley responded to questions about preparedness for the tornadoes that hit his state on Wednesday, killing at least 162 people.

Alabama is used to tornadoes, he stated. It’s part of Dixie Alley. Warnings were broadcast throughout the day, and many schools, businesses, and government offices quit early or remained closed.

“We were very prepared,” Governor Bentley said. But in a highly populated area such as Tuscaloosa, where a maximum force, mile-wide tornado wiped out parts of the city, “you cannot move thousands of people in five minutes.”

With evacuation not possible, individual preparedness, search and rescue, and recovery become that much more important.

April is shaping up to be one of the most violent months for storms and tornadoes in America in decades. The unsettled weather is causing floods, twisters, and deaths in the Midwest and South. Scientists say it’s due to a lingering La Niña system in the Pacific that has shifted wind patterns across the United States.

The severe weather system that plowed through Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and other southern states this week is being compared to the tornado outbreak on April 3-4 in 1974, when 318 people were killed. This time, dozens of tornadoes have killed at least 248 people, but that’s before all the searches have been completed.

As this story unfolds, more will be reported on both preparedness and response. Not all of it will be positive. But despite the tragedy, many actions did show that lessons have been learned when it comes to disaster readiness.

The early closures of schools and offices saved lives, says Tuscaloosa’s mayor. Two thousand National Guard have been deployed in Alabama. The University of Alabama, which was skirted by the Tuscaloosa tornado, sent buses into town to pick up students and bring them back to campus for safety.

The Tennessee Valley Authority – a major source of electricity – powered down three nuclear reactors at its Browns Ferry nuclear plant near Birmingham when the plant lost external power. TVA authorities say the system worked as it was supposed to, although as many as a million people may be without power in Alabama due to major damage to transmission lines.

The coming days will show how well the federal government, through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the states respond to this weather disaster. But individuals will certainly do their part, as they have in past emergencies.

People will be reminded of the importance of personal preparedness – for instance, having a safe place to go if your home does not have a basement and having water, food, and flashlights stored in that emergency place.

[TORNADO CHECKLIST: Six things to do and four myths to ignore.]

Volunteers will also be on the move, just as they were after hurricane Katrina or the armies of people sandbagging in the flooded Midwest. Churches and other groups will offer refuge and resources. Neighbors will reach out to one another.

Disasters leave heartache in their wake, but they also bring people together. That’s the way of love.

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