MONTGOMERY, Ala., June 19, 2007 -- The Department of Postsecondary Education serves a function in the state, that at first glance may appear odd to some people. The system is a crucial player in the state's hurricane preparedness and evacuation plan.
According to the most recent numbers from the department, the total capacity for all two-year college site shelters is 23,400. This number includes pre- and post-storm use of campuses. "If we had a Katrina, we'd fill up our shelters," says Chancellor Bradley Byrne.
"I hope and pray...we don't have another hurricane season like we had in '04 and '05. But our system stepped up to the plate last year and we are first, second, and third tier shelters with EMA," Byrne told the State Board of Education at the June 14th work session.
But, there's a wee bit of a problem with the current situation. Imagine this. It's the end of August. It's 95 degrees outside, 90 percent humidity and you are one of the poor folks that have had to uproot your family and travel to a hurricane evacuation shelter. You find yourself at one of the Tier 1 shelters run by the American Red Cross at a community college. The hurricane passes over and you find yourself with 350 new friends, packed in a gym or other area of the school and there's no air flowing through the facility. There's no fans, no air conditioning and no hot food. You have no idea how long you'll have to stay in the facility before you can be on your way. Welcome to the real world. Yes, people endure a lot worse every day, but why are the gym's big fans not turning?
"I've been in shelters - not personally stayed in them, but I've been to the shelters after these storms and you've got a bunch of people on cots and they don't know the people around them. It's not a good situation, and then you put on top of that no power and you can't give them hot food, you've just taken an already bad situation and made it worse," says the chancellor.
"It's a terrible problem," Byrne told WSFA.com. "When the system agreed to come on and become a major part of the evacuation shelter program with state EMA (Emergency Management Agency), the system was told that there would be money available to go ahead and put in the generator capacity so we can run the power for kitchens and fans and things for the people that needed sheltering."
"But the generators never came forward and in meetings with state EMA over the last couple of weeks, they said they don't have any funding for that, which surprised me, because you'd think if they want facilities like that to open up as shelters that they would have generators."
"We showed them that we didn't have any generators, adequate generator capacity at some of our sites and they said, "Well, that's a gap." That is their word, "gap." Byrne told members of the State Board that he responded by telling state EMA "that's not a gap - that's a crisis."
"So I know enough about all this from being down on the coast and being through a couple of hurricanes myself that not having adequate generator capacity at your shelters is a big issue, particularly since hurricane season hits in August and September when the weather's still pretty warm. So we're looking at ways to at least provide adequate generator capacity for what we call our Tier 1 shelters in the two-year college system," says Byrne.
Those Tier 1 shelters are located at:
Jeff Byard, executive officer at Alabama EMA, says it was probably him that called the problem a "gap." "We've had a series of meetings... and yes, some of the two-year colleges do not have back-up generators. What we are doing to close the gap is working with the two-year colleges to identify their emergency power needs."
Byard says a limited amount of funding is available through FEMA. He says there have been some funds available through FEMA for local governments but most of that funding has gone to provide generators for wastewater treatment plants.
He says previously, backup power for the shelters "has not been a priority." He says state EMA has to prioritize and determine "what needs are out there." Byard says they look at ways of being able to get people back in their homes as quickly as possible after they evacuate.
Byard says EMA prioritizes things based on "life saving purposes" and "life sustaining purposes." He says things like wastewater treatment plants, local operations centers and 911 centers come ahead of things like emergency evacuation shelters.
The EMA executive officer says, "We began our push for generators after Hurricane Ivan. At that time we did not use the two-year college system for shelters. The priority for generators was based primarily on the lessons learned from Hurricane Ivan. Our second priority was to, and is to, fund portable generators that counties can use for various facilities."
Byard says it takes some time to get through the funding system and even then "a lot of the time generators have to be built by the manufacturer." Sometimes the size of the generator required is larger than a manufacturer may have already built. He says there are also some construction differences as well as hookup differences that may cause delays.
I had heard that it normally takes about 8-12 weeks to get generators and get them installed and Byard agreed with that assessment.
The two-year system estimates a need for 18 generators total in their Tier 1 network of schools, 13 for shelters and five for kitchens. Kitchens use gas for cooking but need refrigeration and lights and these are located in buildings other than the shelter site.
According to the department, the rough ballpark figure of the cost for the generators is around $1,375,000, which includes installation.
FEMA's Chief of Headquarters Media Relations, James McIntyre, provided me with the following information about FEMA and the generator issue.
- "FEMA does not have the authority to purchase or reimburse the cost of generators pre-disaster for any county or state. The agency's Public Assistance Program through the Stafford Act has the authority to purchase generators or reimburse their cost after a presidential-declared disaster if they were eligible purchases during the authorized incident period."
- "FEMA may reimburse for the cost of generators used to support emergency work for a declared the disaster if the generators were purchased during that declared incident period."
- "The rental of generators is covered under the Public Assistance Program if they are used for emergency work during a declared incident period."
- "After a declared disaster, eligible applicants may elect to buy federally-purchased generators at depreciated costs instead of renting them if they were purchased during the incident period. This means that generators purchased under FEMA's Public Assistance Program may be bought by the eligible applicants at the fair market price minus depreciation."
- "Again, FEMA cannot purchase generators or reimburse their cost pre-disaster under its Public Assistance Program."
The chancellor told the Board working with FEMA can be a challenge. "You don't really work with FEMA. That's the great myth. The great myth after Katrina was that FEMA is there. FEMA's there after the fact - WAY after the fact. We work with state EMA and state EMA works with the local EMA."
I asked Byrne to expand on what seemed to be an irritation with FEMA. "Well FEMA's a federal agency that's got many problems and I mean a lot of those came out in Katrina. But for those of us that have dealt with FEMA in the past - that's nothing new. We had major problems with FEMA after Ivan on a number of things. And so, while they have a lot of money that they can give out for these emergencies they're really not very easy to work with and frankly sometimes they're not there for funding things that you would think that they would surely fund - like generators for evacuation shelters," says Byrne.
Byrne told the Board the system would be ready. "I'm pleased to say if it's needed, if we get a Category 3 hurricane like Ivan, or God forbid, something worse like Katrina, we're going to be there for the people of the state of Alabama and we're going to be there in a way that we hope that you will be proud of."
Byard told me state EMA has a great working relationship with the new chancellor and the two-year system. "I met with him last week and I'm going down to the President's Association meeting to address any questions related to the two-year college shelter program. Hopefully he keeps it going. We have a good plan in place and we'll be ready to go."
Byrne says there are other issues and doing the whole thing right is more complicated than people might imagine. He told the board last week, "Doing the evacuation thing right, which is another topic altogether, and then coordinating that with your shelters, is a huge task - very complicated task. Particularly when you're talking about a population of people who don't know right this point in time they are going to have to evacuate. So, you have got to communicate that to them, identify them, get them into buses in some cases, get them into cars in other cases and then make sure that we have at the site whatever it is that they need."
"Everything that I've been told is that we have the personnel dedicated to do what we have to do. We actually have at least one person, if not two people assigned to the state Emergency Operations Center in Clanton," says Byrne. "And, I may be one of them. I've typically ridden out the last several storms in the Emergency Operations Center in Robertsdale in Baldwin County, but I think they're ready to get rid of me so they're kicking me upstairs to Clanton."
"We have to be able to coordinate in Clanton with - alright we're evacuating "X" number of busloads to this school, get your college prepared and so there's some coordination. Being in the middle of a hurricane is like being in a war. Now I understand the fog of war, because things are happening you can't predict and you're reacting to them. And so coordination is critical. And it's not just us and local emergency center operation people, it's also going to be DPS, National Guard, etc."
"We've got a lot to coordinate. We're also going to have college personnel, at least one, at each of the emergency operation centers in Mobile and Baldwin counties. So, we're about as well communicated as we can get."
He says there are some things the system is not currently set up to handle. "For the most part we're not set up to be special needs shelters. The biggest problem typically is that people don't have access to utilities. If it's a special needs person, they don't have access to what they would normally need to meet medical needs, etc. And those are the people we worry about the most. "
To be in a position to better service people who have to evacuate in the event of a hurricane, the Red Cross in 2006 trained 328 responders from the two-year college system in health care management, this included nursing and allied health faculty members, nursing students, community physicians, and dentists. It is planned that each shelter have a nurse to triage and provide immediate first aid and then, if needed, transfer people to special/medical needs shelters or hospitals. The system's students are allowed to participate with the faculty and are covered through Red Cross liability as are the other college workers in each shelter.
There were 448 people trained in shelter operations and management, including presidents, presidential hurricane designees for each campus, personnel on each college campus, the Governor's Office of Faith Based Initiatives, as well as anyone in the community that was interested in attending the training. FEMA and the Red Cross have located suppliers on each college campus.
The system is also working with the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Fields is leading the effort, to see what the system can do to help in another area - the evacuation and housing of house pets during a hurricane.
The issue is being examined in light of the fact many people refused to leave their homes when Katrina hit and died as a result. Most shelters forbid people to bring their pets with them. But Board policy, which was changed last year related to pets on campus, says pets may be placed in "designated pet shelters" but "only when the Government declares the use of the campus as a hurricane evacuation shelter."
So will the system have it's generators in time for the the crucial part of this hurricane season? The chancellor says even if they get the money for the generators now the earliest the generators would be available is by Labor Day, but the system can't afford to wait.
"I'm working pretty hard on it. I've asked the governor's staff to look into where we might access that money," says Byrne, who is not one to take no for an answer.
"If we had permanent generators in our Tier 1 and then we could move the portables around to Tier 2 and Tier 3 where the needs may be. We probably would be okay. A couple of our schools already have generators, so it's not like we need them for every school. But that's a big gap and it needs to be closed. If you don't have it, it's hard on people."
But, at least people are working together to try and find a solution to that problem and others. Hopefully, no shelters will have to be open this year.
Reported by: Helen Hammons