THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective: Tuscaloosa

By Matthew Harwood

Another critical asset for communicating in a disaster is our SouthernLinc radios. These push-to-talk units allow us to talk to public safety, public works, hospital, state public health, Red Cross, and school officials, among others. In addition, these units have talk groups which enable a person to communicate to all group members at one time. SouthernLinc is also the primary way we communicate with our National Weather Service office. Many times we will have advanced warning from them that a tornado warning will be issued over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) All Hazard System. This gives us another means of verification prior to activating our Outdoor Warning System for the area included in the warning.

How did Tuscaloosa EMA interact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)?

I think what was done in Alabama will be a national model. In addition to a Joint Field Office (JFO) established in Birmingham, a mini JFO was established here. Tuscaloosa was the home of Division C, which served not only Tuscaloosa County but a number of other counties in our area. When we had a question, FEMA and state officials were available locally to assist us.

What were residents most unhappy with regarding the government response?

One of the challenges we’re dealing with now is the FEMA Individual Shelter Program, which subsidizes a homeowner’s shelter construction. There has been a lot of interest in the program, but the process is slow. After the application process at the local level, the state reviews the package and then FEMA. This can take months. If a grant is awarded, the applicant pays the full cost up front and applies for reimbursement of 75 percent of the cost up to $4,000. A number of people, however, have advised us that they cannot afford to pay the full cost of the shelter up front and wait for reimbursement.

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