Archived Story

Learning from the April tornadoes

Published 6:00am Saturday, January 14, 2012

As we look back on 2011, one day that will forever be remembered is April 27 and the tornadoes that ripped through our state, leaving a path of death and destruction.

The terrible storms were the largest tornado outbreak ever recorded. Never has the state seen such destruction. Never was it more widespread.

From east to west, north to south, communities all over the state were hit. More than 240 Alabamians lost their lives.
Now, the state is in full recovery mode, learning what worked and what didn’t during the storm and its aftermath.

The Alabama Department of Public Health hopes to hear from survivors of April’s deadly tornado outbreak to see what precautions were most effective in saving lives.

Residents in affected communities will be asked questions such as where they sought cover and what materials were used in the construction of their homes.

The department has designed a phone survey that will last 20 to 30 minutes, with the goal of gleaning information to help minimize casualties in future storms. Interviewers want to talk to both people who sustained injuries and those who did not.

One of the main goals of this survey is to analyze the effectiveness of our public education efforts regarding storm safety. We need to know that people are hearing the warning sounds on the television and radio.

We need to be sure that the public gets the message to get into an interior room or to get out of your car and into a ditch or low-lying area.

Because the April storms were so widespread, the event offers an important opportunity to see how effective these messages have been. Improving emergency messaging could be an important legacy of these storms, saving lives in the future.

Another area we need to learn more about is how to make the insurance process go more smoothly. There have been 117,000 claims totaling at least $2.2 billion paid by insurers for the storm. But there are more than 2,500 claims still pending.

If all claims were resolved and counted, state insurance officials say the total would probably approach $3 billion. It prompted the state’s largest insurance company, Alfa, to drop 73,000 policies earlier this year.

Alabama is one of a handful of states that has no laws regulating public adjusters — professionals who are hired by claimants rather than the insurance companies.

After the tragedy, we learned some state oversight is necessary in this area. That is why this year there will be legislation proposed by state insurance regulators to license and regulate public adjusters.

The Alabama State Bar is working with state officials and industry groups to develop a bill that will be acceptable to all parties involved.
State and local officials are also implementing what was learned from previous storms.

There were six schools destroyed last April, with more than a dozen others being damaged. Losing a school to a tornado is unfortunately an event we have had to deal with in the past.

The 2007 tragedy in Enterprise showed how state and local officials must work together to reconstruct schools in a timely and effective manner while minimizing the disruption to students.
Enterprise showed a school rebuilt is a powerful testament to the future.

But the one thing none of us have to learn about is the resiliency of the Alabama people. Driving through the countryside hit by the storms, the dead hulks of trees and debris litter the landscape.
Whole neighborhoods are gone, with only remnants of people’s homes and business.

Yet, there is progress each day, cleaning up, rebuilding and setting to right what was damaged or destroyed. New structures are finished each day. Lives are getting back to normal.

When we look back on 2011, the thing we should remember most about the year is that our state can overcome the worst tornado event ever recorded and come away from it even better prepared than we were before.

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His  column appears each week.

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