Lee County press conference

EMA State Director Brian Hastings addresses the media on Monday, March 4, at Beauregard High School after a pair of tornadoes swept through the Beauregard area on Sunday.

PRATTVILLE – New tools such as the use of drones, and a better understanding of the need to grow local-level disaster relief funds in advance to qualify for matching grants, were among the discussions shared Wednesday in a meeting involving many of the state’s top emergency-response planners.

Quick reaction to disasters such as the March 3 killer tornado that struck Lee County starts far in advance with relationship-building, training exercises, detailed planning, partnership agreements and the growth of disaster relief funding, various speakers said.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey joined that theme Wednesday during the Alabama Disaster Preparedness Conference near Montgomery.

“Failure to plan is planning to fail,” Ivey said after addressing the attendees. “Being prepared is the name of the game.”

Lessons learned

Brian Hastings, director of the state Emergency Management Agency, talked about lessons learned and successes in local, state and federal handling of five major disasters to strike Alabama in just the past two years, including tornadoes in Lee County and at Jacksonville State University, and hurricanes that struck the coastal region.

“I want a very quiet summer,” Hastings said. “I would love to have no disasters.”

However, he said, now is the time to get ready for the next one sure to come.

Hastings also highlighted the fast response to Lee County’s tornadoes in March, in which 23 people were killed, nearly 100 injured, and the communities of Beauregard and Smiths Station were hard hit from an EF-4 twister that packed 170-mph winds.

The fast response started with local officials such as the Lee County EMA, sheriff’s office and numerous other first-responders being prepared and able to work in unison, but that effort also quickly extended to the state and federal levels seeking additional assistance, Hastings said.

“The disaster happened on Sunday,” he said. “By Monday morning, we already had papers ready to sign.”

That paperwork moved from Lee County and the state EMAs to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even the White House by Tuesday. By Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump had declared Lee County a disaster area, opening the door for federal aid.

Then on Friday, Trump was on the scene only five days after the tornado struck.

“That partnership, starting with the local EMA, made all the difference,” Hastings said.

'It is inevitable'

The state director also issued a call to the Alabama Legislature to build up Alabama’s Disaster Relief Fund so the state is in better position to obtain federal and private grants that require matching funds.

“The states prepared to match grants are the ones who will get the money,” he said. “Are we prepared? We have to have funds ready to get those grants.”

Ivey was among Wednesday’s earliest speakers and began by thanking the emergency planners and responders in the room for their often-heroic work.

“Alabamians are known for stepping up and helping their neighbors during times of disaster,” she said to the representatives from all parts of the state. “You being here is evidence of that.”

She also echoed the mission of advanced preparedness.

“We can hope and pray that disaster won’t occur, but we know it is inevitable,” Ivey said. “When lives are at stake, it is important that we’re prepared.”

Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He previously served as the news editor in New York for the nation's second largest newspaper company, and as the senior editor at several other news entities around the nation. He is an Auburn alum.

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