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We've made progress, but there is more to learn

By Staff
Johnny Mack Morrow
Franklin County Times
We've seen the first major hurricane of the season hit the Gulf Coast, and it is clear that we've learned a great deal since the dark days of Katrina.
Alabama and the nation responded well to Hurricane Gustav, and while we narrowly avoided the devastating effects that the storm produced, our state did its part to help folks that were displaced.
Louisiana and New Orleans officials ordered the mandatory evacuation of its citizens, creating an exodus of families escaping what was feared as another devastating storm.
Buses, cars, and even trains came streaming from the bayou country into Alabama, and evacuees settled in every corner of the state for the week.
There was a concern about our capacity to deal with such a large group of folks, something we haven't had to do since Katrina.
But in the three years since that disastrous storm, state government had developed a plan to get those who needed it help and shelter.
It worked, but there are still lessons to be learned.
State troopers were positioned up and down Interstate 65 the day before the storm hit to provide information and assistance to those coming from Louisiana.
Having our hard-working officers there at exits to provide not only information, but also assurance and public safety, went a long way to guide folks to the appropriate facilities.
There is no doubt Alabama played a central role in taking care of the displaced.
Estimates show that more than 12,000 displaced citizens were housed in emergency shelters across the state, and many more took refuge in our hotels.
Alabama opened dozens of state community colleges as evacuee shelters, and in all, about 6,500 people were housed in Alabama community colleges for a week.
The National Guard was called into duty, performing security at seven evacuee locations throughout the state
The soldiers relieved local law enforcement, and also did yeomen's work in distributing food and water to the displaced.
There were problems at the community colleges though. In Tuscaloosa, one of the first stops possible from Louisiana, Shelton State Community College became crowded too quickly when buses stopped there instead of continuing on to other facilities further east where there was space.
Also, our community colleges were not equipped to deal with the elderly and others who had critical medical issues, and often there were not enough college staff to deal with the numbers of people.
The Red Cross estimates that Alabama's community colleges could care for up to 25,000 people based on the facilities.
However, it seems clear by the experience of Gustav that number is much too high.
The community colleges were not the only entities taking care of evacuees. Gustav turned out to be the largest shelter operation the Red Cross has ever handled in Birmingham.
During the emergency, the Red Cross ran 16 shelters in central Alabama serving almost 8,000 displaced people.
Many in Alabama were disappointed with the Red Cross' effort after Katrina.
Two years ago, state government gained federal aid to set a disaster system where it would be the central responsible entity running Alabama's disaster shelters.
It was this effort that had the cots ready and the staff trained at our community colleges. While we did better at that couple of years ago, Gustav shows there is more to learn.
Yet, one of the best lessons learned is how thousands of Alabamians responded during this crisis, volunteering at the shelters, showing up to bring food and other items, doing what they could to help those in need.
Even as we see that our state has weathered the first major hurricane of the season, sure enough, another one looms on the horizon.
Ike is plowing through the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico, and everyone in the South is looking at it with concern.
Since Katrina and Gustav, we now know that a major storm not only affect the state where it makes landfall, it affects our entire region.
So let's hope that Ike doesn't live up to its namesake and sputters out as it hits the beaches.
Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.