Watching the heartbreaking video from Moore, Oklahoma, the citizens in Huntsville, Alabama, know what a tragic and challenging time this is. As we keep you in our hearts and prayers, we also stand ready to assist as you rebuild your lives and community.
Like Moore, Huntsville and our surrounding area has repeatedly been hit by devastating tornadoes. We lost 21 people when a tornado ripped through in 1989, leveling homes, shopping centers, and an elementary school. The devastating April 2011 outbreak not only left a swath of destruction, but the city lost power and services for a week. Many other storms have impacted our area, and while the damage may not be as widespread, the effect on human lives is always the same.
As mayor of Huntsville, I appreciate the responsibility facing Mayor Glenn Lewis. Despite years of tornadoes and strong efforts of readiness, nothing can truly prepare you for the aftermath of an EF5.
When the storm passes and rescue and recovery efforts begin, it is the local leaders who make the difference. Pledges of money and federal disaster assistance are important, as are symbolic visits by state and federal leaders. But the real work begins immediately, on the ground in front of you.
There are people to help and hands to hold. Victims need food, medicine, shelter, and clothing. The mayor is in the best possible position to know the community’s resources, mobilize emergency services, organize relief efforts and ensure a sense of calm and order.
For Huntsville, the massive power outage caused by the 2011 tornadoes added an additional strain on recovery. Low-income residents did not have pantries stocked with food, grocery stores were closed, and the few that attempted to open couldn’t accept credit cards. There was no gas, no bank or ATM services, and no electronic communication. The EF5 had created the perfect cyber-attack.
Some things helped us immensely: Municipal and county leaders quickly got together and established a central command station and appointed one spokesperson. Cross-jurisdictional law enforcement and government worked in concert to address the critical needs of community and spoke with one voice. The local newspaper set up a trailer with a generator and printed and distributed information on emergency resources to everyone they could reach.
We communicated regularly and directly with TV and radio as they returned to air and utilized social media to the extent it was available. Our leadership team mobilized organizations to deliver food to the needy and to relocate homebound or at-risk residents reliant on oxygen or dialysis. Like Moore, we instituted a 6 p.m. curfew and we asked our neighbors to walk outside, knock on doors, and help each other.
Patience is also one of the lessons we learned. While people are full of goodness and the desire to help, they also need managing and coordination. Recovery takes a long time. Physically and emotionally, and it can take weeks, months, or even years. Mayor Lewis will need to rest and get some sleep. He needs to be the thinker, manager and hugger, and he can’t do it on an empty tank.
The aftermath of a disaster is tough for any community, but in the end, the best of the human spirit will prevail. Neighbors come together and the city emerges stronger than ever.
Moore, Oklahoma, will never be defined by its worst tragedy. It will be defined by its triumphant return to life.