Elmore County Emergency Management Agency director Keith Barnett urged the county’s mayors last week to establish volunteer groups to assist first responders in disasters and advocated turning away from a reliance on sirens to warn of tornadoes.
Barnett said the recovery of Wetumpka, Titus and Elmore from tornadoes this year “will continue for months. A huge amount of the county has been affected this year. It could happen anywhere, anytime.”
Volunteers in each municipality would be a powerful asset in recovery efforts, Barnett said.
“We want volunteers in each jurisdiction,” he said. “It’s a force multiplier. For example, if you need somebody to help direct traffic (at a disaster scene), it frees your resources.”
Barnett noted the effectiveness of volunteerism in the immediate aftermath of the EF2 tornado that struck Wetumpka in January and during a search for two missing men on Lake Jordan during the Fourth of July weekend after a boat crash.
“We had 1,200 volunteers after the Wetumpka tornado,” Barnett said. “At Lake Jordan we had food, supplies, water and (electric) fans brought to the lake by community people who were not only taking care of first responders but the families.”
Barnett told the mayors during the meeting at the Elmore County Courthouse sirens have become an obsolete and ineffective way of warning communities about life-threatening weather.
“The upkeep and maintenance is so expensive,” he said. “We have NOAA weather radio and (cell phone) apps. We have good cell coverage for the most part in the county. If you’re inside, you won’t hear that siren. They aren’t dependable. If ones breaks down, we don’t know it’s broke until something happens and we try to use it. Adding sirens would not be beneficial. It would cost $25,000 to $30,000 to put one in your jurisdiction. The smartest move is maintaining what we’ve got for as long as we can and look to future technology. I’d say the priority is weather radio 1, apps 2 and sirens a distant third.”
Barnett said while it’s crucial for mayors to know the process of getting state and FEMA reimbursements for damage, the most effective responses come from the cities and towns themselves.
“Eighty-eight percent of all disasters must be handled at the local level and reimbursements are not 100%,” he said. “There is a (local) match.”
Barnett reminded the mayors Wetumpka did not reach FEMA’s standard to receive a federal disaster declaration from President Donald Trump.
“Wetumpka didn’t meet FEMA’s threshold,” he said. “There is a $300,000 threshold for underinsured or uninsured losses in the county and we met that. But for a statewide event it has to be $7.1 million and we didn’t meet that. We were basically the only tornado in the state that day. The city had good insurance but was still about $1 million short.”
State Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), who was at the meeting with the mayors, said he plans to reintroduce legislation in 2020 to establish a rainy-day fund to help with disaster relief. Chambliss had proposed using some of the proceeds from an Alabama lottery to repay the Alabama Trust Fund and establish the emergency fund.
“I had a bill that got through the Senate but not the House where the first $10 million would be used for things that don’t meet the federal disaster declaration,” Chambliss said. “I will be bringing that back in the next session. I am contemplating if I want to make it a major, major issue. Do I stand up on it? It depends on what happens with the prisons. I can’t stand up on that and jeopardize (funding) prisons. The prisons are a big deal in Elmore County with an annual economic impact of $180 million a year. We’ve got to maintain what we have.”
Barnett said the most FEMA will award individual applicants after a disaster declaration is $35,000.
“They won’t make you whole,” he said.
The EF4 tornado that killed 23 people in Beauregard in March was a lesson in preparedness for Elmore County.
“In the Lee County tornado, it was obvious from the devastation they would get a disaster declaration,” Barnett said. “Some had no clothes and their houses were spread throughout the woods. But FEMA told the families, ‘We still need death certificates and a deed (to damaged property).’ Nearly 200 people stood in line at the courthouse the next day to get copies of the paperwork they needed and (the courthouse) wasn’t ready. God forbid that happens here but we are planning to have enough manpower to handle that if it did happen. Every day we’re involved in planning. I had no idea how much when I came into the job 10 months ago.”