Every Alabamian has their own story of April 27, 2011, the day of the largest natural disaster in the state’s history when more than 230 Alabamians lost their lives.
On that day towns like Hackleburg, Pratt City, and Phil Campbell moved became communities forced to unite after facing unimaginable destruction. Fifty years from now, people will still recount how more than 60 monster tornadoes tore across the land, destroyed homes and schools, and permanently changed the topography of our future.
I remember the events of that and subsequent days from the perspective of a staffer for Gov. Robert Bentley. I saw the tragic events as they unfolded and the recovery as a first-hand witness to leadership in the wake of tragedy.
Speaking directly to the people
By midafternoon that day, countless tornadoes had wreaked havoc on thousands of square miles of the state. The EMA director kept Governor Bentley constantly updated. I saw pictures and video of the devastation from my computer screen in the chief of staff’s suite. The National Guard and every governmental agency and available person were trying to help tornado victims.
I was with several other staff members in the governor’s office when he told us he wanted to speak directly to the people of Alabama. A short time later, we crowded into studio at the bottom of Dexter Avenue as the newly inaugurated governor began his address. During the live broadcast, Bentley spoke in a calm authoritative tone. He gave information for those who needed help, numbers to call and other pertinent information. But most of all, he projected the reassuring knowledge that he cared, was in charge, and that help was on the way.
Just before that broadcast, Tuscaloosa had been hit by a monster twister. We didn’t know the extent of the damage or how many lives had been lost, but we knew it was bad, really bad. The tornado had just hit head on the governor’s home city, home to three of his sons and six of his grandchildren, and home to his church and to his friends .
Yet Governor Bentley delivered his address in a calm and reassuring way. It must have taken great strength to deliver that address, a strength of leadership I don’t know that I’ll ever possess to put the personal aside and do what was best for the state. In that moment, though, and for months afterward, that’s is exactly what he did.
You don’t go into government inherently knowing everything you need to know. There are always things to learn from names and office locations to procedures and policies. This administration was no different and because April 27, 2011, was only the 100th day of the Bentley administration, we were all still very new to the executive branch.
We had just made it through inauguration and into our first legislative session. Now we faced the largest natural disaster in Alabama’s history. Nothing prepared us for that, but that may have been an advantage because not knowing how things had been done in the past allowed us to follow the governor’s lead and do what he thought best. That allowed the recovery to go much smoother than anyone anticipated. A little common sense goes a long way.
Where do we go? What do we do?
When Bentley asked me to be his campaign manager for the 2010 gubernatorial election it was the greatest honor of my life. One opportunity it afforded me was the chance to meet the University of Alabama students who were campaign volunteers and interns. The Bentley Gubernatorial Election Headquarters was at the corner of 15th Street and McFarland just a few blocks from campus so we were always a favorite hangout for politically interested college students.
Shortly after the tornado hit Tuscaloosa, many of us who had transitioned to government from the campaign tried to contact the students we had gotten to know. Telephone lines were down, cell phone towers were destroyed, and calling into Tuscaloosa was extremely difficult.
For hours, I heard nothing from anyone I tried to reach. At about 8 p.m. my phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “Miss Angi, where do we go? What do we do?” It was a young man from Chicago who had worked feverishly on the campaign. We affectionately referred to him as “Research Joe.” I could tell he was scared and worried. He was with a group of friends but their apartments were mostly destroyed or heavily damaged. They were OK, though, and he asked what to do next. I told him to make it to the campus rec center where there would be people to help.
I often wonder what that sweet kid from Chicago thought when he emerged from his tornado-safe place to see what happened around him. I often wonder whether he questioned his decision to come to Tuscaloosa. He graduated with honors and is now in a Northern law school. I’m fairly confident that he will be president one day.
As the night progressed, I heard from almost every one of those campaign volunteers who had remained in Tuscaloosa. They were all shaken and scared but alive and uninjured. A tremendous relief, it gave us all a little hope.
“Make sure they are fed”
As the storms subsided in the evening, the focus turned to recovery. About six of us were with Governor Bentley in his office when he ended a phone call with Art Falkner and Jeff Byard from the EMA Headquarters in Clanton. By that point, the EMA bunker had filled with people well-trained in disaster response. They were going to be in that Chilton County bunker a very long time.
Bentley sat silent for a few minutes, then he stood to take out his wallet. He handed me money, and asked me to go buy food and take it to Clanton. I will never forget his words:
“We have to make sure they are fed.”
I did as instructed and cleared the local grocery store of every already-made deli sandwich. As I drove to Clanton, I thought about how this man who refused his governor’s salary so concerned about everyone else that he spent his own money to feed them. Then I wondered how long it had been since he had last eaten. I am not sure he ever ate anything that day.
Alabamian helping Alabamians
Almost immediately, Governor Bentley told the staff he wanted to visit every damaged area. Most of us thought it would be to fly to two or three key stops. That’s not what he did, though. For weeks, he traveled to every devastated area and met victims.
The governor is a genuinely good person with an even more genuine bedside manner. As he and his wife toured county after county, he met with grieving families who had lost homes, property and most importantly, family members. He prayed with them, hugged them, comforted them and always seemed to know exactly what to say. Even if just for a moment, he made each of them feel a little better and a little more hopeful.
I was in north Alabama on a campaign stop for another candidate in 2012 when a woman approached me saying she’d heard I knew Governor Bentley. She then told me about the day the governor’s SUV pull into the driveway of what was left of her home. She said how much his visit meant to her and how she knew he really cared. He talked to her “a long time,” she said, adding that she had never voted for a Republican but she would vote for him next time. I assured her that wasn’t why he visited her, and she said she knew that but that he was a good man.
As I advanced Bentley’s tornado tours, I met a lot of good people, including those who’d come from across the country to help complete strangers put their lives back together. I met Alabamians helping Alabamians on a scale I never could have imagined. In the aftermath there were no poor or rich, no black or white, no Democrats or Republicans, just survivors. We were all just Alabamians helping Alabamians.
All government is local
One of the most famous clichés in politics is “all politics are local.” In the aftermath of the tornadoes, the governor created a new approach to disaster recovery that centered on the idea that all government is local government. Immediately after the weather settled, he dispatched Cabinet members to devastated areas throughout the state. Within 24 hours, every affected area had a Cabinet member on-site offering a helping hand.
On April 28, Bentley started a new communication method for post-disaster recovery. He held daily conference calls with county commissioners, mayors, city council members, sheriffs and legislators. He asked EMA, FEMA and National Weather Service personnel to join the calls, and he shared every bit of information he could with local officials. He also answered all their questions. Nothing was out of bounds nor any question too big or small. If he didn’t know the answer, he took their names and contact information and, once he found the answer, he called them back.
Communication between local and state government had apparently never been so extensive and it fostered a new spirit of cooperation among all levels of government. It also opened up information sharing among all agencies and levels of government. Governor Bentley has continued to use that communication model in other weather events that have happened since.
The tornado outbreak also changed how FEMA responds to disasters across the country. After FEMA sent a very insensitive letter to Alabama survivors, the governor demanded the letters be retracted and that he view any correspondence that was to go out to residents of his state prior to distribution. Since then, FEMA has changed the way they handle communications with people nationwide.
On the one-month anniversary of the tragedy, a little hope was being restored in Hackleburg. Hackelburg was one of the most damaged communities and everything from city hall to the local school was destroyed. But on that one-month anniversary of tragedy, Hackleburg High School’s senior class was graduating. They could have held their graduation elsewhere but they voted as a class to receive their diplomas on the football field with the backdrop of the rubble that used to be their school.
As they convened early that morning for their graduation rehearsal, two surprise guests greeted them to hug each one of them and congratulate them personally. Those kids had been through more in a day than most of us ever will, so those two guests were Gov. Robert and first lady Dianne Bentley.
That morning, as they walked through their graduation rehearsal just yards from piles of rubble, each graduate received a special gubernatorial commendation. It meant a lot to them but I think it meant more to the Bentleys. They had seen so much despair and so much damage, but the smiles of those graduates symbolized more than a typical graduation. They symbolized hope that things were going to be OK.
It’s four years since that April 27 and most of Alabama is being rebuilt. Fifty years from now, few people will remember exactly what happened that day. I will always remember, though, and will always remember how that day and the days following allowed me to witness true leadership, true caring, and the epitome of the calm in the eye of the storm. That day, on his 100th day in office, Governor Bentley taught me a very powerful lesson: Stay calm, care about people and work hard to do the right thing and you can get through anything.