February 3, 2016
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
  • emergency workers at disaster site

In a matter of minutes on the afternoon of April 27, 2011, a massive and powerful tornado leveled 1/8 of the area of Tuscaloosa, AL, a city of approximately 90,000 people and home to the University of Alabama. Doctrine called for the County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) to take the lead in organizing the response to the disaster – but one of the first buildings destroyed during the event housed the County EMA offices, leaving the agency completely incapacitated. Thus, in the minutes and hours following the tornado, the City of Tuscaloosa found itself largely on its own as it began implementing a response. Fortunately, the city had taken several steps in the preceding years to prepare for responding to a major disaster. This included having sent a delegation of close to 70 city officials and community leaders, led by Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox, to a week-long training organized by FEMA. “Ready in Advance” reveals how that training, along with other preparedness activities undertaken by the city, would pay major dividends in the aftermath of the tornado, as the mayor and his staff – coordinating with an array of local, state, and federal counterparts – set forth to respond to one of the worst disasters in Tuscaloosa’s history.

Learning Objective:
“Ready in Advance” prompts students to consider what pre-event preparedness measures allowed officials in Tuscaloosa, AL to respond to a major tornado in 2011. Among other things, it illustrates the usefulness of group training initiatives, dedicated political leadership, and organizational frameworks that enable coordination across functions and sectors. The case demonstrates how taking advance action can lead to effective in-the-moment response, ultimately minimizing disaster risk and damage.

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