Legislators tour tornado-damaged north county, hear from still struggling communities
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2011 - State representatives, local mayors, Ameren representatives and north county residents were just some of the people gathered at the Maryland Heights Government Center earlier this afternoon to meet with the Missouri House of Representatives' Interim Committee on Disaster Recovery. They hoped to give the legislators recommendations of how the state should handle disasters.
About 60 people attended the meeting in the city's municipal courtroom. Public officials as well as private citizens spoke about their experiences in the wake of the April 22 "Good Friday" tornado.
Those who spoke were concerned about residents falling through the cracks of the system during disaster response, and each urged the representatives to create legislation to make sure each citizen or municipality had their needs fairly met.
Maryland Heights Mayor Mike Moeller described how the evening of April 22 started out as a normal Good Friday but quickly turned into a life-changing event. So far, his city has spent nearly $350,000 on post-tornado related expenses. According to Moeller, 75 percent of that amount is eligible to be paid by Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and 10 percent by the state Emergency Management Administration -- though the process to get reimbursed is often complicated.
"FEMA works the rules so that it's to our disadvantage to do [the work] ourselves," Moeller said to the committee. FEMA wouldn't reimburse the city if city employees worked overtime to clean up the debris, he said. The city would only get the money, he added, if it hired a contractor.
Moeller also praised emergency response teams, the Missouri Red Cross, neighboring municipalities and the people of Maryland Heights for offering assistance when the city needed it most. With his voice choking, he added that it would take years for things to get back to normal for his town.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City and a member of the Missouri Senate's Committee on Natural Disaster Recovery, urged the committee not to forget the working-class "urban core" that is also affected by disasters. Chappelle-Nadal admitted that she, too, once believed that tornados only happen in rural Missouri, but had been proven wrong.
Members of her district have faced flooding and disasters with little response, said Chappelle-Nadal for as long as she could remember. Even as a girl, she had heard about flooding in University City.
"Do not forget the urban core," Chappelle-Nadal said in a firm voice. "We are one state. We are one Missouri."
Others testifying included: St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman on how disasters affect property assessments; Ameren representatives on the company's disaster plan; and a member of the Ferguson Fire Department who is also the city's representative with FEMA.
The committee is made up of 15 representatives, all from districts that have seen recent disasters. So its members are no stranger to the destruction they saw today. Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, rode out the Joplin tornado with his family in the kitchen of an IHOP, which he remembered disintegrating around him. The group had already been to Sedalia, Joplin and Sikeston.
Earlier in the day, members of the committee, led by committee chair Rep. Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, toured the tornado-damaged neighborhoods in north county.
The group stopped by Ameren UE's Dorsett Campus, where they toured a mobile command center as well as a supply distribution trailer. The two units are part of a small fleet Ameren has ready to deploy for any disaster. Many of the representatives praised Ameren for improving their response time and infrastructure management over the past few years.
"Five or six years ago, if the wind blew, we'd be out of power in north county," said state Rep. Sylvester Taylor, D-Black Jack, whose district was heavily hit by the April 22 tornado.
Local mayors Kyra Watson of Berkeley and Brian Fletcher of Ferguson joined the handful of representatives as they toured damaged homes in Bridgeton, Ferguson, Berkeley and others. As the Maryland Heights Parks and Recreation van made its way through north county, they were reminded once more that trees still press against houses, roofs are still missing, and the lives of some of the people they serve remain as shattered as the broken glass still left in the street.
Ryan Schuessler, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon.