Profs Slam Tuscaloosa Tornado Recovery...and the Mayor Bites Back

2011's tornado death toll — the fourth highest in U.S. history — was mostly the result of two extreme weather episodes: The April 25-28 tornado outbreak across Tornado Alley, in which 348 people died, and the catastrophic F5 tornado strike on Joplin, Mo., which killed 162 people and carved a path of ruin across the middle of Joplin. Wikipedia has full entries on both tornadoes (" April 25€“28, 2011 tornado outbreak" and "2011 Joplin tornado," various authors). This month, two professors took Tuscaloosa, Ala., to task for its approach to rebuilding after the April catastrophe. Tuscaloosa was one of the hardest-hit cities in the April outbreak; a year later, University of Alabama history professor David Beito and Troy University professor of economics Daniel Smith slammed the city's leadership in a Wall Street Journal editorial for sandbagging Tuscaloosa's rebuilding process with what they described as a top-down approach to redevelopment and rebuilding. The professors cast a sharp contrast between what they describe as Tuscaloosa's failure versus Joplin's success (" Tornado Recovery: How Joplin Is Beating Tuscaloosa," by David T. Beito and Daniel J. Smith). "Joplin is enjoying a renaissance," they write, "while Tuscaloosa's recovery has stalled." "In Joplin, eight of 10 affected businesses have reopened, according to the city's Chamber of Commerce, while less than half in Tuscaloosa have even applied for building permits, according to city data we reviewed," the professors write. "Walgreens revived its Joplin store in what it calls a €˜record-setting' three months. In Tuscaloosa, a destroyed CVS still festers, undemolished. Large swaths of Tuscaloosa's main commercial thoroughfares remain vacant lots, and several destroyed businesses have decided to reopen elsewhere, in neighboring Northport." In Tuscaloosa, officials have taken the tornado as an opportunity to re-make the city's urban plan, revise codes and zoning, and kick off a 20-year process that would redesign the city's core with "new urbanist" principles. But Professors Beito and Smith call this ambitious effort the "crux of the problem," noting, "The plan never mentions protecting property rights." "The reason for Joplin's successes and Tuscaloosa's shortcomings?" the pair write: "In Tuscaloosa, officials sought to remake the urban landscape top-down, imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses. Joplin took a bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery." The editorial was well received in website comments from the Wall Street Journal's nationwide readership. But some residents of Tuscaloosa who had lived through the tornado and its aftermath were less impressed. Alyce Smith, a hospital pharmacist whose family volunteered in the tornado response, wrote, "As a Tuscaloosa resident, I am frankly shocked at the accusations made against my fellow citizens and local government." Smith defended Tuscaloosa's effort to take the long view, writing, "Over 3,000 local citizens came together to form the long-range recovery plan. When something this devastating hits home, it is unwise to rush into the recovery without thought, and I am personally thrilled to see how much better our city will be when the process is complete." Tuscaloosa mayor Walter Maddox hit back at the criticism with a defense posted on the city's recovery website, www.tuscaloosaforward.com (" The Facts of Tuscaloosa's Recovery," by Walter Maddox). Calling Beito and Smith's opinions "misrepresentations," Maddox said, "As for commercial rebuilding, Beito/Smith asserts that 8 out of 10 businesses in Joplin impacted by their E-5 tornado were now re-opened for business. This is not even remotely accurate. According to statistics released by the Joplin Globe on March 27, Joplin had issued nearly 250 commercial permits in their recovery zone to 50 percent of the businesses affected by the tornado. In Tuscaloosa, 242 commercial structures were damaged and 114 were destroyed. Since April 27, 92 percent of the 242 commercial structures that were damaged have received repair permits and 34 percent of the destroyed structures have received new construction permits." "Unlike Joplin who lost major retail centers (i.e. Home Depot, Wal-Mart), Tuscaloosa lost very few national big boxes," the mayor went on; "therefore, our small businesses are dealing with issues such as availability to credit, insurance and non-conformity to existing zoning. This fact alone is why Tuscaloosa passed new urban zoning to provide more flexibility and mixed-uses. Further, the private sector is working as property owners are deciding whether to acquire or sell their property." Here is a Birmingham News retrospective with interviews, photos, and videos about the experience of Alabama communities during the April, 2011 tornado outbreak (" ONE YEAR LATER: Heroes of the storm (slideshow, videos)").