Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

A vision in progress: Looking back at Tuscaloosa's plans post April 27, 2011

Only 48 hours after the April 27, 2011, tornadoes that blew through his hometown, Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox was told two things by the FEMA director assigned to the city – first, that the average recovery period for the damage Tuscaloosa sustained was 10 years, and second, that he would never survive re-election to see the end of that 10 years.

“At the time, I just couldn’t understand it,” Maddox said. “But we were dealing with so much, I couldn’t really think through the logistics of it … Those are, certainly, things that I heard and understood, but I was damned and determined to do the right thing.”

Five years later, Maddox would still sit in the same office he has occupied for 11 years, though the issues he has had to tackle during his tenure as mayor are far removed from anything that could be included in a mayoral platform.

“Disaster is something you can never plan for,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had to do something like this. There’s no manual you can turn to that says, ‘To deal with X, you do Y.’ ”

Maddox has had one guiding principle, however, to which he has always held tightly, one that was given to him in a phone call with another mayor who had endured natural disaster: Rebuild the right way.

“He told me, ‘You get one opportunity,’ ” Maddox said. ” ‘You’d rather people be mad at you for a few years than be mad at you for a lifetime.’ ”

That mentality, Maddox said, led to the Tuscaloosa Forward plan, which city officials drafted not only for the purpose of recovery but as a means of drawing the community together. The intent of the plan was to approach recovery in a way that was not only sustainable, but also addressed already-present needs within the communities that were most affected. In doing so, however, expediency could not be a first priority.

“In the 30-plus town hall meetings that we had after the storm, it was clear that people wanted a different direction, which borne [sic] the Tuscaloosa Forward plan,” he said. “The community’s the one that made the decision to focus long-term. There were obviously some voices that didn’t want to take a strategic approach, but the majority of those who were impacted demanded that we do something better. I’m glad that our city heard that and responded with the long view.”

To ensure the city had the necessary resources to address recovery, Maddox and city officials established the Office for Recovery Operations. It was created as a reformation of the Incident Command Center and utilized the same staff that served as the initial response team in the storm’s aftermath.

Robin Edgeworth, who served as chief incident commander before transitioning to director of recovery operations, said the flexibility of the office was an integral part of the Tuscaloosa Forward plan that allows for ongoing recovery without unnecessary government positions.

“Having an office change over time gives you the ability to expand and contract as necessary,” Edgeworth said. “It affects your response, [and] it affects your dollars that you have at your disposal. And what we’ve tried to do is have most of our dollars go back into the community as opposed to just staffing up more and more people.”

But a response plan meant nothing without money. Tuscaloosa incurred over $630 million in infrastructural damage, and the city had no money directly allocated for costs of this nature.

“We didn’t have one dime,” Maddox said. “We had to go get grant after grant after grant. We’re slowly and methodically and systematically putting it together.”

The city has accrued about $128 million, most of which has come from federally subsidized Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery. The city has also received around $30 million in insurance proceeds that have contributed to that total, as well as some money from non-profit community partners.

The damages amplified other problems that already existed in some of Tuscaloosa’s poorest communities. Twenty-five hundred families were displaced in the aftermath, and 71 percent of those families had a median income of less than $25,000. Within that, 32 percent made less than $15,000.

“These were communities that were in distress on April 26 and far before,” he said. “Areas like Forest Lake and Alberta were not living up to their potential, so to do nothing was to go back to the way it was. We’d been through hell and back, but especially the people living in those communities – they had been through hell and back.”

Businesses impacted by the tornado have suffered in ways that were not a direct effect of the storm itself.

“Two-thirds of the businesses that were destroyed were built before 1969, which meant they were built before the city had building codes, fire codes, land use codes,” Maddox said. “So building back quickly wasn’t ever really an option to begin with, because you don’t unwind all those complex issues overnight.”

Where Tuscaloosa differed from situations like Katrina, Edgeworth said, was that there was a very concerted effort from the city to work in tandem with the state and federal level in the rebuilding process. Many of the complications that arose in rebuilding, however, stemmed from even more issues outside of the realm of municipal control.

“There were some difficult conversations [with] business owners who couldn’t build back because their property was nonconforming, or they were built in a floodway, and under federal law, you can’t build back into that floodway – things like that,” Maddox said. “Those are very difficult decisions, but those are ones that quite frankly, we had no legal choice but to make.”

This became a common theme throughout the course of recovery.

“Federal emergency management – if you think about it, they are not designed to respond to a disaster every day, because disasters don’t happen every day,” Edgeworth said. “So they’re not adequately staffed to manage disaster. So what they do, pre-event, is they hire contractors for when those things do happen.”

Those contracted laborers, Edgeworth said, work in six-week cycles, and that can create rifts in the way recovery is addressed.

“The way I interpret, you interpret, he interprets a regulation – they may all three [be] different,” she said. “So in 18 weeks, you have three different people, one who tells you to do it this way, and then the next one who comes in and says, ‘Why are you doing it that way?’ and so on.”

Most of the challenges Edgeworth’s office has incurred over the years have come down to learning the limitations of state and federal regulations and how that plays into what the city is able to accomplish on a month-to-month, week-to-week or even day-to-day basis with the federal funds they’ve been given.

“It’s an everyday problem,” she said. “You’re thinking, okay, FEMA’s going to come, and they’re going to help us do X,Y and Z. But really, they’re there to facilitate on a federal level … I had this idea at the beginning that you just call the federal government and say, ‘Here we are! Tuscaloosa! Come on down!’ and they bring you answers, but that’s not, in fact, how it happens.”

Edgeworth said the process is less a direct advisement and more so a trial-and-error process.

“It happens where you say, ‘Okay, here’s the way we’re going to handle that,’ and they say, ‘Okay, but you won’t get federal reimbursement for that,’ ” she said. “It may be the way you need to do it, but it doesn’t seem to work well within their laws.”

Prior to the tornado, Edgeworth worked as a legal affairs administrator for the city. While her role is now in disaster relief, she said it has been one of the greatest challenges in legal affairs she has ever experienced.

“I began to have to deal with federal government and state government on a different level, because it’s not something where there’s a lot of people to go to,” Edgeworth said. “Most jobs, there’s someone who’s already done it before and ask, ‘How would you do this if you were me?’ But for me there’s really not that person – not even in our state – because each disaster is unique.”

Most disasters that have occurred over the past 20 years, Edgeworth said, have primarily dealt with flooding, so it’s difficult to research solutions to large scale disaster that few communities have encountered in recent history. That puts a lot of pressure on her office to try to get things right the first time.

“I feel like that’s one of the first things people look at when they look at Tuscaloosa – how we’re building back, how we’re doing things,” she said. “I want to do it well, because that’s what people are looking at, and I do want to see us build back better.”

Maddox is always asked how Tuscaloosa measures up to recovery efforts in New Orleans and other disasters, but it’s nearly impossible to compare one city to another.

“Each disaster comes with its own set of circumstances, and those circumstances have to dictate the pace and tenure of your recovery,” Maddox said. “For us, we knew there wasn’t a housing crunch because we had the student housing complexes. We knew we had a lot of uninsured, especially on the business side. Ultimately, we knew we had the opportunity to plan strategically.”

While Maddox and Edgeworth both agree that a long-term strategic response was the only feasible option, they said they recognize and understand some of the dissatisfaction that has stemmed from recovery efforts over the years.

“The criticism can be justified,” Maddox said. “There are decisions that we made during the course of this recovery that didn’t work. There are assumptions that we made that didn’t go quite logically.”

There was primarily the issue of increased student apartment housing, a result of private equity funding and rising land prices following the 2007 recession, that was and is being built in the 2011 tornado path in lieu of general residential expansion. While it initially served as alternative housing for affected families, it became a growing problem around two years after the storm.

“If you have higher land prices, the only way to get a return on value is to go vertical, which lends itself to student housing,” Maddox said. “When we saw that trend bubbling in 2013, the council put in place a moratorium [on student housing projects].”

For the 87-and-a-half percent of the city that wasn’t directly affected by the tornado, any increase in taxes to generate more revenue would have been a hard pill to swallow, Maddox said. Increasing taxes on an unaffected majority to help an affected minority is never well received, he said, but the city has made a concerted effort to obtain most of its money from grants, a move that he believes has been well supported by the community.

All successes and shortcomings aside, Maddox said he very quickly learned that there was no possible way to please every resident when it came to creating plans for building, zoning and infrastructure when over 5,300 property owners are impacted.

“It would be virtually impossible [to please everyone],” he said. “But if we didn’t do it the right way, the community that I was born in – my hometown – would know that I failed them, that the city failed them. So I felt like we had to take the road less traveled.”

In 2015, the Office of Recovery Operations shifted into its second phase, Resilience and Innovation, which will continue to focus less on recovery and relief and more on encouraging Tuscaloosa’s furthered growth. One of its primary operations has been to grant commercial and residential housing loans, and according to a 2013 report, nearly all of the affected businesses have been reopened or are in the process of being relocated and rebuilt.

Though the coordination of relief efforts has been a slow and difficult process, Maddox said he is proud of how far his community has come and that he anticipates the growth to continue.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re close to a tipping point,” Maddox said. “And when we hit that, the momentum is going to be unstoppable.”

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