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Mayor Walter Maddox created a disaster recovery plan that led Tuscaloosa, Ala., through one of the most tragic events in its history.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2012 print issue with the headline: Building a championship team.
Though it's almost a year and a half since a tornado ripped through her home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Virginia Johnson still becomes emotional when she recalls her despair at the enormous damage to her neighborhood and her appreciation for the leadership of Mayor Walter Maddox, who spearheaded the city's response to one of the nation's worst natural disasters.
With one-third of her home in shambles and massive debris all around, she says she wondered how her neighborhood would ever recover from the massive storm. Yet, almost immediately, the city began organizing resources to clean up and then rebuild, and she attributes its effort to the foresight and energy of Mayor Maddox.
"He showed leadership before, during and after the tornado," Johnson says. "The first few days were very emotional. We couldn't see how we could come back. He was not only able to help us rebuild, but he helped lift the spirits of our neighborhood."
Without doubt, April 27, 2011, was one of the most tragic days in the history of the city. On that day, a massive tornado, with winds topping 190 miles per hour, went on a six-mile long, mile-wide rampage through the city, killing more than 50 people, destroying more than 1,200 homes and damaging another 4,000. In all, the storm's wrath inflicted more than $60 million in damage. (A total of 64 deaths and 1,500 injuries are attributed to the tornado, when the surrounding communities are included. In all of Alabama, 253 were killed.)
Maddox's vision began with FEMA training
Yet, today, city leaders as well as its 93,000 residents, speak optimistically about the city's future and the performance of city employees in the midst of an overwhelming natural disaster. And, above all, they give credit for the city's resilience to Mayor Walter Maddox.
"I've worked with the mayor since he came on the city council and I know that he is a man of vision," says Harrison Taylor, the president of the city council. "But until the tornado hit, I had no idea of the leader that he had become. The Mayor stood tall."
For his leadership before, during and since the natural disaster and his vision to make Tuscaloosa a model New South city, American City and County magazine has chosen Mayor Walter Maddox its Municipal Leader of the Year.
While the mayor's efforts in the immediate aftermath of the tornado have drawn the highest praise, he is also saluted for his partnership with the University of Alabama, which is located in the city, and his dedication to all areas of the city, including those in underdeveloped neighborhoods.
"He's a fair man," Taylor adds. "He will not do favors for one part of the city over another part. Every part of the city is treated equally. He's that kind of mayor."
It is the city's response to the tornado that impresses those familiar with disaster recovery efforts. Maddox is often commended for his foresight in successfully seeking and receiving a grant to send 70 Tuscaloosa city and area staff to Maryland for a week long emergency training session in 2009, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). During the training, FEMA staff simulated site-specific disasters to assess how well officials from Tuscaloosa and surrounding neighborhoods implemented its plan. For the next two years, the staff held quarterly practice sessions.
The training became invaluable when initial weather reports on the morning of April 27 warned that a strong storm was headed for Tuscaloosa. By noontime, when radar showed that the city faced a direct hit, the mayor activated the city's Incident Command team, ready for such a moment. When the tornado struck at 5:13 p.m., the Incident Command team was already assembled and prepared.
But they could hardly expect the damage that the storm had wrought, leveling whole neighborhoods, ripping giant trees out by their roots and gashing. The city's treatment plant was disabled. There were gas leaks and small fires.
The wreckage was enormous. By the time the cleanup was completed, the city had collected enough debris to fill the University of Alabama's 101,000 seat Bryant-Denny Stadium, the nation's fifth largest, five times from the grass to the top of the lights.
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Dennis E. Kizziah, who is the executive director of FEMA's Mississippi Recovery Office, says the city's work in meeting the community needs ranks among the best recovery programs he has ever seen in his 16 years with FEMA, which includes responding to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
"I was astounded and impressed by the amount of incident preparedness," Kizziah says. "I've never seen such a team assembled to respond at that level in my career. I can't say how impressed I was."
Assigned by FEMA to coordinate the federal response to the disaster, Kizziah says he was struck by the mayor's "leadership and his ability to inspire" his team. "I've been around the country and around the world and he is still held in high regard with me and my staff with how he led the city," Kizziah says.