Friday, February 08, 2008

Ahead of the Storm?

Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor is putting FEMA on notice. Just hours after killer tornadoes devastated portions of his state, the senator announced that he had already spoken with agency director David Paulison, telling him, "I will not tolerate a slow reaction time. FEMA must not use bureaucratic excuses to avoid helping Arkansans."

There's no doubt that Senator Pryor wants government assistance to quickly reach his home state. And certainly, FEMA's response in some disasters has been less-than-ideal. But it's also clear that Mr. Pryor is engaging in a convenient bit of bureaucracy-basing, for his own political gain.

Since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has become a rather convenient target for anything to goes wrong during a disaster response, often clouding the role played by state and local officials. With the exception of former Governor Kathleen ("Should We Evacuate?") Blanco, Louisiana politicans largely escaped blame for the debacle that followed the hurricane, while FEMA became a symbol for bureaucratic inepitude.

Obviously, FEMA deserved much of the criticism it received, but we couldn't help but note the irony of that situation. While the federal agency's mistakes were investigated and probed by various Congressional committees, the legion of errors by local officials received virtual no scrutiny, and many of the local pols who badly failed their constituents (hello, Mayor Nagin) are still in office.

If Senator Pryor is truly concerned about government's response to natural disasters, he might demand a hearing into what was done--or, more correctly---what wasn't done, in preparation for the deadly tornadoes that swept across five southern states. An initial examination of data from the National Weather Service reveals that most of those who died Tuesday night were residents of counties that do not participate in the agency's StormReady program.

First established in Tulsa, Oklahoma nine years ago, StormReady is aimed at improving community readiness for severe weather and tsunamis (in coastal regions), with emphasis on improved communications, local coordiation and public education. Since 1999, more than 1300 sites have joined the program, including 572 communities and 689 counties. However, these participants represent only a fraction of the towns, cities, public institutions and commericial locations that are eligible for StormReady.

By all accounts, the program has been a resounding success. Van Wert County, Ohio gained its certification in January 2002. Eleven months later, a killer tornado struck the area. As one of the requirements for StormReady, the county purchased a number of alert units for public buildings and other high-traffic areas, to disseminate weather alerts. One of the units was placed in a multi-plex cinema. With advance warning, the theater staff was able to move patrons to safe areas before the storm demolished the building. At least 50 lives were saved.

Caruthersville, Missouri, had a similar experience. The small town, located in the state's Bootheel region, attained its certification in June 2005, only 10 months before an F3 tornado damaged or destroyed almost two-thirds of the buildings in the community. Despite the devastation, no one from Caruthersville died in the storm--the result of early warning and readiness provided (in part) through the StormReady program. By the time the tornado arrived, most of the town's residents had found shelter.

Neighboring towns in Tennessee weren't as fortunate. After leaving Caruthersville, the violent twister skipped across the Mississippi River and killed 12 people in a three-county region. One of those communities (Dyer County) was also certified as StormReady. Local emergency managers believe the local death toll would have been much higher, if not for the measures implemented as part of the program.

Basic requirements for StormReady certification can be found here. In some cases, localities may find it necessary to add staff, or buy new equipment. But some of those efforts can be funded through federal grants from FEMA.

Communities that have entered the program give it high marks. Some credit StormReady with increasing public awareness of severe weather and individual safety measures. Local emergency managers tell the NWS that the program has made it easier to obtain political suport for their budget requests. In other instances, participation has allowed local towns--and their residents--to obtain lower premiums for flood insurance and other hazard coverage.

Of the 17 counties (in four states) that recorded tornado fatalities on Tuesday night, only four have been certified as StormReady. Put another way: of the 56 persons who died in the tornado outbreak, 43 lived in counties that have not implemented the measures recommended by the program. A county-by-country breakout of those totals is provided below, along with the number of storm fatalities in each affected area, and their status as a StormReady participant:

TENNESSEE (32 Deaths)

Macon County (14) NO
Shelby County (3) NO
Fayette County (1) NO
Sumner County (7) YES
Hardin County (3) NO
Trousdale County (2) NO
Madison County (2) YES


Allen County (4) NO
Muhlenberg County (3) NO


Jackson County (1) YES
Lawrence County (3) YES


Pope County (4) NO
Van Buren County (3) NO
Conway County (2) NO
Izard County (2) NO
Baxter County (1) NO
Stone County (1) NO

If more of these counties were program participants, would Tuesday's death toll have been lower? At this point--in fairness--that's difficult to say. There are a number of variables that affect the outcome of any tornado event, ranging from the strength of the storm; the time of day it occurs, the twister's track and the relative density of local population, to name a few. But, if preparation and planning are key in dealing with natural disasters, then some localities in the Mid-South could do more to get ready for future storms.


ADDENDUM: That's assuming that local officials are up to the task. Two years ago, WTHR-TV in Indianapolis discovered that area warning sirens had failed thousands of times, and many were broken beyond repair. When local leaders complained that they didn't have the money to fix or replace the sirens, the station pointed out that federal funds were available--but in many cases the money was being spent on other equipment for WMD attacks. As WTHR reporter Bob Segall learned, only two of the 39 Indiana counties applying for homeland security grants in 2006 planned to spend the money on warning sirens--despite the year-round threat of severe weather.

In Central Florida, where tornadoes have killed almost 70 people over the past decade, local leaders expressed support for new or expanded siren systems, but worried about the cost. But, as the Orlando Sentinel observed, many communities could install a siren network for the amount of money already spent on other projects, ranging from a covered playground, the new sidewalks.

Across the Midlands of South Carolina, the problem was two-fold: a lack of sirens and keeping them in operation. WIS-TV reporter Dan Tordjman discovered that only one of the region's 22 counties had all of its sirens in working order. Most of the counties either didn't have sirens, or what they had was inoperable.

The point of these horror stories is rather obvious: given the political and budgetary constraints that affect many local emergency management operations, it's little wonder that most communities have not joined the StormReady program. If local leaders can't be trusted to install (and maintain) something as basic as a siren system, meeting the wider requirements of StormReady may be a near-impossibility.

In one of the more telling anecdotes from the disaster, emergency managers in Pope County, Arkansas reported that residents of Atkins--one of the first towns battered by the killer storms --received early warning from a newly-installed siren system that was donated to the community. The sirens that saved lives this week came from a local nuclear power plant which had upgraded its warning system and gave the old equipment to the town. While the good people of Atkins are understandly thankful, the gift begs an obvious question: why couldn't state or local officials come up with the money for the sirens?

Residents in areas affected by Tuesday's storms should ask elected officials about those kinds of issues--and why they've elected to opt-out of the StormReady program. They might also query their Congressional delegations about the amount of Homeland Security money flowing into the state, and what it's being spent on. Buying equipment for a WMD attack in Arkansas or Indiana is commendable, but it may not be the best investment--particularly when preparations for more likely threats are lacking.

If residents get the usual run-around about the cost or budget priorities, they should do something recommended for everyone in Tornado Alley. Invest in a NOAA weather radio, and develop your own safety plan in advance. Because if you're waiting for the government to ensure your safety during the storm, you may wind up disappointed--or worse.


SwampWoman said...

FEMA was never meant to be a first responder. Sounds like the states are busily trying to evade their responsibility for disaster preparedness.

Unknown said...

Swampwoman--I've always been amazed at how quickly the public (and the media) seem to lose interest in these matters. Obviously, folks in the affected areas are busy, trying to rebuild their lives. And the press, which has the collective attention span of a gnat, has already moved on to something else.

But emergency preparedness at the state and local level is a subject that merits a serious investigation. Way too much cronyism, and the budgetary priorities are often out of whack to boot. Consider those Indiana counties that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on gear and training for a terrorist or WMD attack. Could such an event happen in central Indiana? Yes, but on the probability scale, that sort of attack is much less likely than severe weather. Yet, the "local leaders" won't spend money to fix their siren system, and most didn't know that federal grant money can be used to pay the bill.

You're exactly right: FEMA IS NOT a first responder; in fact, their imitial response to Katrina was within their mandated window (96 hours). Obviously FEMA was not without fault in Katrina (and other disasters), but there's plenty of blame to go around at the state and local level.

I still find it amazing that New Orleans' public safety director (a retired Marine Colonel) kept his job after the disaster, despite the fact that his expensive communications system failed (while the Nextel cell network remained operational), and significant numbers of New Orleans cops either failed to report for duty after the storm, or participated in the looting.

Not all local first responders are as bad as those in N.O. But if I lived in a county where people died during Tuesday's storms, I would be asking questions about warning and preparedness.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.C. McCloud said...

Local NWS officials around here also credited Timmy the Twister for helping keep residents of Caruthersville on their toes, along with this recent event.

SwampWoman said...

Expecting part-time representatives of the Federal government, never well known for its efficiency, to come and physically rescue people from disaster is Darwin-award stupid. Truckloads of FEMA supplies were idling at rest stops just a few miles outside the tropical force winds the last time I was in a storm situation, but the roads have to be cleared of trees, power lines, and other miscellaneous debris before they can drive into the devastated areas.

Everybody needs to have the supplies on hand to take care of themselves for at least a week in the event that a disaster strikes.

The Federal government is never going to save anybody's butt in a disaster. That will be done by the neighborhood people.

I do not know when people started putting responsibility for their survival on others, but it is a dangerous thing to do.

Conservative Futurist said...

I'm glad someone (you) decided to call Senator Pryor on his remarks. The notion that FEMA is some kind of national responder is absurd. Yet, that remains the expectation of the American public thanks to an irresponsible media looking to pin every ill that befalls this nation on the Bush Administration.

I like the site re-design, by the way. Sorry I've been away for so long!