Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Alabama Emergency Management no longer reporting casualty figures

image On Sunday, this blog posed the question: How many people are really missing in Alabama? That post was not meant as a knock on the fine organization and outstanding effort of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, or the heroic efforts of the City of Tuscaloosa’s Mayor—Walt Maddox—and his tireless team of public servants. It was meant to shed some light on the fact that there were inconsistencies between the two organizations’ published figures for casualties and missing persons.

Under Incident Management System (IMS) protocol, a single Public Information Office (PIO) is responsible for communicating with the public and insuring that the information provided is clear, accurate and represents the best data available at the time.

The State of Alabama has one of the best disaster response organizations in the country. They have polished their procedures to the extent that very little in the way of assistance is required from FEMA. Even with the breathtaking scope of the April 27 disaster in Alabama, FEMA is providing only token assistance and coordination. That will change somewhat as the efforts morph from response to recovery, but by and large the state and local authorities are showing the nation how a disaster response effort should be managed.

How information regarding casualties and missing persons has been communicated is the only blemish on an otherwise exceptionally well managed response. Today, there are a pair of stories in the state’s print media on this subject. The first, published by the Birmingham News, notes that the discrepancy is not limited to Tuscaloosa County, but appears to be an issue in other areas of the state as well:

Counties in the greater Birmingham metro area hit hard by the storms reported no one missing as of Monday according to the state EMA data.

"I think at most we had maybe eight persons reported as missing in the first few days and they have been accounted for now," said Regina Myers, assistant EMA director in Walker County.

Jefferson County has had a high of about 50 people who were "unaccounted for," but none had been classified as "missing," said Mark Kelly, public information officer for Jefferson County EMA. He was unsure how many of those people still had not been accounted for late Monday.

The second of the two articles covering the story was published by the Tuscaloosa News, and that story explains part of the reason why such discrepancies exist—the lists of missing persons being maintained by the local authorities are in a near constant state of fluctuation. As a result, Alabama EMA’s Situation Reports are no longer including casualty and missing persons information.

I think that’s a mistake.

It’s important information that prevents wild rumors from being propagated—like the one over the weekend that Forrest Lake had been drained and that authorities were keeping horrible secrets about numbers of lost lives. Rumors like that divert important resources and strain the already stretched thin law enforcement. Clear, concise information from emergency management officials—even if the information is stale the moment the ink is dry—helps prevent the spread of misinformation.

I am glad that AEMA and local authorities are aware of the discrepancies noted here last Sunday. I am disappointed that EMA has elected to cease communicating the information altogether. It makes it difficult for news organizations to get a clear picture of the situation. The public is incompletely informed and that lets people make up and spread crazy stories.

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