Surviving a tornado that killed 23 neighbors and injured nearly 100 more friends and family is tough enough, but having to ride by or sit months later and still see the mounds and mounds of destroyed, leftover debris up and down local roads is an untreated emotional wound that deserves a much faster cure.
“We just want it gone,” residents of the worst-hit areas repeatedly have said.
It took too long
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local governments involved are finally in agreement on how to remove the debris, but it took too long, and that makes this issue one for the “lessons learned” list that perhaps could make things smoother when comes the next need for such response.
Local officials, namely the Lee County Emergency Management Agency and county government, along with FEMA and the Alabama Department of Transportation all finally reached necessary agreements this past week on who and how to clean up the rights of way littered with haunting, unappealing and dangerous debris piles formed during recovery efforts after the March 3 killer tornado that struck Lee County.
The Beauregard and Smiths Station communities bore the brunt of the monster storm, an EF-4 tornado with 170 mph winds that destroyed most of everything in its immediate path, leading to the deaths, injuries and the federal disaster declaration from President Trump.
The storm struck March 3.
Next weekend is Memorial Day weekend, approaching almost three months after the tornado.
The biggest hold-up in moving the debris still just sitting there?
FEMA’s required loads of paperwork and documentation before it will approve much of the financial payback that is desperately needed on the local level to cover the expensive costs of such a project.
A long paper trail
When a disaster similar to the March 3 tornado strikes, Lee County and the Alabama Department of Transportation have pre-existing preparations for response and recovery. But some guidelines fall through the cracks, such as an agreement for debris removal on state rights of way, sources explained to the Opelika-Auburn News.
“If this material is picked up, and we don’t have the proper agreements in place and the documentation that FEMA requires, I have been told by my FEMA representative that if we go out there, pick it up quickly with all the rest of our stuff and submit it for reimbursement, he has told me it could jeopardize our entire FEMA reimbursement,” Lee County engineer Justin Hardee said. “I personally think it unlikely, but I cannot tell you it is not true.”
Eliminating that confusion alone is one fix the array of authorities that must work together can and should address for future reference.
Local officials must be educated on pre-existing agreement requirements before, not after a disaster, and FEMA must recognize that not everyone easily understands the hoops it must place on governing federal funding and sharing it.
The issue clearly is a problem in other disaster areas as well, including in the aftermath of 2018’s Hurricane Michael, which still has much of Alabama’s Wiregrass and coastal areas dealing with similar slow recovery and cleanup efforts.
Although how much of it is attributed to bureaucracy and how much to simply a shortcoming of funding and personnel is difficult to determine, these are problems that must be addressed, as obviously natural disasters and the havoc they cause will continue to be a fact of life.
Meanwhile, we commend local and state officials for finally reaching accord with FEMA and jumping through those many hoops to get the help our communities desperately need.
Finish the job
Clearing the road rights of way will be a big step taken toward true healing and recovery.
Until then, seeing every day the millions of tiny pieces of destroyed material that once were part of family homes, beautiful forests and daily life are only another reminder of just how much we suffered and lost.
It’s time to take out the trash.