Urban Area Perspective: Tuscaloosa

By Matthew Harwood

Considering your long career in emergency management, what really surprised you about the tornados?

Tuscaloosa had two separate tornado events on April 27. We had the two EF-3s that caused damage in the county during the early morning hours. Had it stopped there, it would have been a significant weather day. Then early in the afternoon, we were hit with the two EF-4s. The Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Operations Center was destroyed. If that was not bad enough, our community lost our Salvation Army facility, which is one of our primary shelters for the homeless. As the tornado tracked through our city, we also lost the West Alabama Red Cross chapter facility. Our operation and two critical nongovernmental organizations that are there with resources to help after the storm were some of the first victims of the afternoon storm.

What can you do better next time considering what you learned from these tornados? How do you plan to be more resilient in the future?

We’ve talked quite a bit about “spreading our assets.” Our small department lost 100 percent of our response vehicles as well as our personal vehicles. We are also in the process of designing a replacement for our Emergency Operations Center. We are planning on a hardened facility with our backup power in a hardened structure as well. We are looking at multiple options for storing our emergency-response assets so they will not be in one place.

What is absolutely critical in your mind for redundancy?

We keep a lot of our documents on our servers, rather than on individual computers. However, if we lose access to the Internet, we lose our server. When we move to our new facility, we will have our server on site. About 50 percent of the computers in our office are laptops. This gives us the ability to move them to another location, connect to the Internet, and continue operations. Should the two means of hardwire access to the Internet fail, we have air cards to provide another way to connect to the Internet.



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