April 2012

News

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Concerns about the high cost of gasoline and the environment are fueling support for compressed natural gas, electricity and propane as alternatives to traditional gasoline and diesel fuel, speakers said at the Clean Energy Conference held today at Birmingham-Southern College.

Robert "Sid" McAnnally, vice president of external affairs at Energen, said the company began getting a surge of inquiries about compressed natural gas vehicles from customers this year as talk spread that pump prices could surpass the September 2008 Alabama record of $4.05 a gallon.

Though pump prices have fallen a bit in recent weeks, McAnnally said interest in CNG remains high.

"I think the alternative fuel movement will remain as gasoline costs continue to be historically high and people have concern about the environment and want to lessen dependence on foreign oil," McAnnally said shortly before making a luncheon keynote address during the conference, hosted by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.

Bob Strickland, who oversees the CNG program at Energen subsidiary Alagasco in Birmingham, said CNG cost the equivalent of $2 per gallon of regular gasoline. He said natural gas also reduces foreign oil consumption since 98 percent of natural gas consumed in the U.S. comes from North America.

"Ford, Chrysler and GM will all have natural gas powered pickup trucks on the road this year," Strickland said. "Those manufacturers wouldn't invest in CNG vehicles if they didn't believe that demand will continue to rise in the future."

Charles Ball, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, said the group came up with the Clean Energy Conference as a way to celebrate Earth Day and bring experts to educate the public about how alternative fuels can protect the environment.
A capacity crowd of about 100 people attended the event, which featured workshops and had booths from sponsors including CommuteSmart, EcoThree, Phoenix Energy, Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition and Precision Sales & Service.

"We want to make this an annual event," Ball said.

A go-cart powered by propane and several cars and trucks that use CNG were on display during the conference on the Birmingham-Southern campus. The speakers included Robin White, an Alabama Power executive who talked about the latest trends in electric vehicles.

Via AL.com

Sidewalk plans on Homewood City Council agenda

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

HOMEWOOD, Alabama -- The Homewood City Council has identified where it wants to build its next sidewalks and plans to approve that list at its meeting tonight.

The council culled a list of 45 areas recommended by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham for sidewalks then narrowed that list to 12 areas during a work session last week.

The chosen sidewalks represent 11,377 feet of concrete at a cost of about $980,000.

In this year's 2011-12 capital improvements budget, city officials allocated $900,000 for new sidewalks and $100,000 for sidewalk improvements to address residential demands for more sidewalks throughout Homewood.

The council in October asked the regional planning commission to develop a thoroughfare improvement plan for roads, sidewalks and trails in Homewood.

The commission recommended 45 areas for sidewalks at a cost of $4.6 million and ranked projects from highest to medium priority. Councilman Peter Wright said the council stayed true to the ranking for the most part.

Council members considered safety concerns, proximity to schools and sidewalks that bridge gaps between neighborhoods in their decision on which sidewalks to build first.

"Our list isn't too far from what the RPC recommended as high priority," Wright said.

Four of the city's five wards have two new sidewalk projects with the exception of Ward 5, which stands to receive one new sidewalk this go-round.
However, Ward 5 will receive about $100,000 to improve existing sidewalks.

"Our sidewalks are some of the oldest in the city," Wright said, a representative of Ward 5 in the Hollywood section of Homewood.
Sidewalk improvements would likely be done in-house by city crews whereas new sidewalks would likely be put out for bid, Wright added.

Council President Allyn Holladay said the council hopes to leverage federal Safe Routes to School funds to build sidewalks closest to its elementary schools. "We used that as our guide in what to pick as a priority," she said.

If the 11-member council approves the sidewalk projects tonight, it hopes to move quickly to get projects started, council members said.

"Everybody pretty much knew what their constituents wanted. I think everyone is pleased," Holladay said concerning council members' selection of new sidewalks within their wards. "It's a limited amount of money so we can't do everything now. We just have to get moving."

Via AL.com

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama --- The Birmingham Housing Authority's application for one of five federal redevelopment grants of up to $30 million is among 41 others from across the nation submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Birmingham is hoping to get a chunk of $110 million available through HUD's Choice Neighborhoods program. The housing authority is pursuing plans to replace the aging Loveman Village housing community with a new mixed-income community.

The deadline for submitting the application was April 10 and housing officials have said they expect the grants to be awarded by January 2013.
Multiple applications came from several cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans. Some were filed by housing authorities and others by nonprofit organizations and private development companies.

Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Tampa, and San Antonio are among the larger cities applying. Applications also came from smaller places such as Ponchatoula, La., Hamburg, New York, and Kannapolis, N.C.

The only other application filed from Alabama was submitted by the Buhl-based Spates Contracting and Development, which wants to use the funds to build apartments in Scooba, Miss.

Despite the number of applications, Birmingham Housing Authority Executive Director Naomi Truman said she is hopeful Loveman Village will be awarded the grant.

"Competition was a given because there are so many needs out there," Truman said. "We've put our best foot forward and hope for the best."
Choice Neighborhoods is the successor to HUD's Hope VI program, which helped Birmingham turn downtown's Metropolitan Gardens into Park Place and the former Tuxedo Court in Ensley into Tuxedo Terrace.

Once Hope VI's funding was slashed, HUD implemented Choice Neighbors, a program intended to replace blighted public housing with energy efficient, affordable homes and transform surrounding neighborhoods into revitalized mixed-income communities, according to HUD's website.

The first five Choice Neighborhoods implementation grants, totaling $122 million, in 2011 went to Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle.

The program also focuses on using public housing redevelopment to enhance neighborhood public schools and early learning programs, public transportation, as well as improve access to jobs and increase the health and safety of residents.

Communities are expected to use the funds to implement a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization strategy.

Razing Loveman is only one aspect of Birmingham's proposal, planners have said, as the funds are expected to spark a redevelopment of the many vacant properties along the surrounding North Titusville streets. The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham has said nearly 27 percent of the land in the 434-acre North Titusville community is vacant or abandoned.

"It would encompass a complete transformation of the neighborhood," Truman said.

HUD also expects grantees to work with public and private agencies to build community support for the development and ensure it is financially sustainable.

Truman said the housing authority constantly forges such partnerships as it pursues its mission of providing affordable housing to the city's poorest residents.

The housing authority is working with the RPC and the Atlanta-based company Columbia Residential for the proposed redevelopment.
A Birmingham City Council committee in March also endorsed providing nearly $10 million for infrastructure upgrades, such as sidewalks and streetlights as part of the proposed redevelopment.

Other partners for the planned redevelopment of the North Titusville community include UAB, Princeton Baptist Medical Center, the Birmingham Crossplex and Legion Field, Truman said.

It's not the first time Birmingham has sought federal funding to replace Loveman Village.

The housing authority in 2011 applied for a Hope VI grant for the 498-unit Titusville housing community that is nearly 60 years old. That plan, which called for building a new complex with 280 units, was rejected.

Ardell Turner and her husband moved from North Birmingham to a rural hollow near Palmerdale in 1950. Turner was the superintendent of Dixie Bronze Company. "We were both country people," she said.

Now the city, in the form of a Northern Beltline for Birmingham, is coming to her. After years of wrangling, the Alabama Department of Transportation has bought a 50-acre swath through the middle of her 375 acres.

The sound of frogs and bird songs will soon be joined by the sound of earth-moving equipment as the course of what will become a six-lane interstate is cut through the mountains between Alabama 75 and Alabama 79. As Turner understands it, a bridge will tower 80 feet above Self Creek.

"That's the worst part of it, taking my creek," said Turner, now 88.

Over the course of decades, the route of the Northern Beltline shifted father from the city center as suburban development spread. That outward shift keeps down the numbers of people who will lose their homes or property.

But it also diminishes the beltline's effectiveness as a traffic route.

In fact, the Northern Beltline's most significant effects on downtown traffic wouldn't occur until 2048, when the entire route is completed. And even then, the lack of a direct connection to I-20 in the east limits the route's effectiveness.

Meanwhile, Birmingham's downtown interstates are facing increasing pressure.

In 2014, when a connection between Corridor X and Interstate 65 is completed, Birmingham will have two cross-country interstate routes converging in the city, an innovation expected to bring a surge of truck traffic to the already crowded downtown interstate network.
"It is already having a big impact," said Darrell Howard, a planner at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham. "It is just a lot of traffic. You have got more freight traffic that is coming through."

That has some planners thinking about more direct connections that could provide relief sooner and possibly at a lower cost.

Darrell Howard, deputy director of planning at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, said several approaches have been looked at over the years. There are some options that could provide significant transportation improvements, but all include downsides that may make them impossible to pursue.

The lines on the map are easy to draw and the benefits easy to dream of. When Corridor X joins I-65, it is expected to be re-designated I-22, connecting Birmingham to Memphis, where a trucker can pick up I-40 for a straight-shot all the way to Los Angeles.

The trip from Birmingham to the busy port at Long Beach, Calif., is shorter through Memphis, 2,042 miles, versus 2,077 via I-20. Memphis already is a major inland shipping hub, with heavy volume of freight moving between Memphis and Atlanta.

So if I-22 continued past I-65 and tied into I-20/59 near the airport, traffic traveling either direction between Atlanta and Memphis could bypass the downtown junction. Additionally, traffic coming south on I-65 and heading east toward Atlanta could take the spur, as could I-20/59 traffic heading north from Birmingham.

Depending on the alignment, that connector would be in the neighborhood of two or three miles long.

The problem is what you encounter in those two or three miles.

"We looked at that years ago," said Don Vaughn, ALDOT's chief engineer. "But you get into a heavy industrial area with contaminated materials and we could not get through there. If we stir it up, we clean it up, and there is too much through there."

Current plans call for ending I-22 at U.S. 31, just beyond its intersection with I-65. If it were to continue in a straight shot, it would soon run into a sprawling industrial complex owned by Walter Energy, which includes a plant that cooks coal into coke, an ingredient in the steel-making process.

Beyond that, the road would have to cut across at least a portion of either the Collegeville or Harriman Park neighborhoods. Both neighborhoods have long suffered the brunt of pollution from surrounding industry. And though such a route possibly could be engineered to provide those communities with a long-sought, quick and easy connection to the rest of the city, it also would bring an increased load of air pollution from automobile traffic.

There might be ways to twist the route through vacated industrial sites, but contamination might be present.

Another seemingly direct line on the map would be to turn the existing U.S. 31 into a northern extension of the Elton B. Stephens Expressway, which would provide many of the same transit benefits as the I-22 extension. However, that project would face an impossibly tight squeeze between the former Carraway Hospital property and beyond that the North Birmingham business district, and it would require taking numerous homes and businesses.

A third option would be to create a downtown bypass by extending Finley Boulevard.

City planners have long considered the possibility of a secondary route that could take truck traffic from Finley's beginning near I-20/59 at Arkadelphia Road and connect it over to Alabama 79 near the airport.

The extension of Finley into Collegeville and beyond is being actively pursued, though the planned project would have a much smaller footprint than would be required for a true highway. The route also would cut across homes and potentially contaminated industrial sites.
Someone coming fresh to the debate might wonder why I-459 couldn't be extended, creating a true beltway loop.

"If we could have tied in right there it would be perfect, but you can't get there," Vaughn said.

ALDOT studied that alignment but it goes through such dense residential neighborhoods that the toll would be far too high. The road would have to take 738 residences, one school, 22 businesses, three apartment complexes, five churches, one park and two cemeteries, Vaughn said.
"You have development. You have historical areas, parks, you can't get through there without wiping that community out, so it pushed us further to the east."

That compares to 485 residences and 35 businesses expected to be taken along the much longer Northern Beltline route.
Still, the project does come at a cost to people and the environment.

On Turner's property, the cool waters of spring-fed Self Creek tumble through a rocky course of small waterfalls on its way toward Turkey Creek.
Self Creek is part of a stream system that is home to three endangered species of fish: the vermilion, the rush and the watercress darter, though surveys didn't detect their presence on her land. The road and resulting development at expected to have an impact on the water quality of those streams.

Turner had considered donating portions of the land along Self Creek as a park.
"It would have made a nice park," she said.

via AL.com

The Alabama Department of Transportation is taking steps to widen I-65 from the U.S. 31 exit in Alabaster to Shelby County 52 in Pelham.

The 3.5 mile stretch of interstate is four lanes now -- two going north and two going south. There are plans to widen it to eight lanes -- four going north and four going south.

At its last meeting, the Shelby County Commission approved a standard agreement with ALDOT regarding the widening, which usually signals that ALDOT will soon start accepting bids from companies interested in doing the work.

Brian Davis, a division engineer, said ALDOT doesn't have funding in place to do the $50 million project, but is getting everything in order so it can be ready to go out for bids if funds become available.

"We're finishing up everything we can do so we can be ready to let the contract if money becomes available," Davis said.

The designs for the widening are finished, he said.

But Davis emphasized that the steps being taken by ALDOT does not mean the start of widening is imminent.

The project is penciled in for fiscal year 2016 on ALDOT's five-year plan, but could be done sooner.

In the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization's 2035 plan, which was put together a few years ago and will soon be updated, the project was due to be funded in fiscal year 2012, but that changed, said Michael Kaczorowski, principal planner for transportation at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.

MPO approved ALDOT's request Wednesday for $600,000 that ALDOT says it needs to purchase right-of-way for the widening project.

"That's good news, in the sense that they are moving forward," said Kaczorowski. "They're going to be ready when funds become available." By taking the necessary steps now, it would be a matter of weeks or months to get construction started, he said.

The widening from the U.S. 31 exit in Alabaster to Shelby County 52, commonly known as the "tank farm" exit, would pick up where the recent widening of the interstate from Valleydale Road to Highway 52 stopped.

The next phase would be from the U.S. 31 exit in Alabaster to the Shelby County Airport exit.


Via AL.com

Get paid to carpool through ride-sharing program

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

People can get paid to car pool in Jefferson and Shelby counties.

CommuteSmart's ride-sharing program offers incentives for carpooling. The whole idea is to promote getting to work any other way than in a single occupied vehicle - to relieve traffic congestion and to provide better air quality in the Jefferson County and Shelby County regions.

CommuteSmart has been around since the 90's; however, A representative with CommuteSmart Jeniese Hosey said few people know about the ride-sharing program, but the word is spreading. She said in addition to the incentives there are multiple reasons why it's catching on more now than in some years past.

"I think with the rising cost of gas and I think that people are also understanding more and more about taking a different commute to work. It is not only for financial reasons, but also for stress reasons and to have a different quality of life as they do kind of around the country," Hosey said.

This is one of many ride share programs around the nation. There are more than 3,000 participants statewide.

For more information about CommuteSmart's ride-sharing program, click here.

By Robin DeMonia

It took only seconds for a tornado to destroy Kay Spanick's Concord home. While the storm killed four people nearby, Spanick emerged from the mangled remains of her home with her aging father, husband and dog?--?unhurt, but not unscathed.

Everything spared by the twister was coated with bits of glass, fiberglass and insulation. The gritty mixture packed even the pockets of Spanick's pants. "It took me two days to get the stuff out of my hair," she says.

A year later, settled into a different home in a different neighborhood, Spanick still battles the stubborn residue of the storm.

Physical reminders assault her as she drives past her old community, where stalks of bare trees frame an alien landscape: new houses, old wreckage and lonely driveways. And her emotions attack from within.

In the months since the storm, Spanick has been grieved, angry, grateful, afraid. Most of all, she has been terrified of another storm. It didn't help Jan. 23 when her father's vacant home in Center Point was hit, too, by a twister. "It's like going through it all over again," she says. "I don't think it'll ever be over."

The tornado outbreak on April 27 marked a turning point for thousands of Alabamians, and not just its direct victims. "I like to say the tornado literally and figuratively has changed our landscape," says Suzanne Durham, the CEO of the YWCA of Central Alabama.

Some see the tornado outbreak as Alabama's 9/11, and it's easy enough to see the parallels in our devastating encounter with this menace: We were shocked to discover our own vulnerability. We were determined to be better prepared. And we felt a new sense of closeness and connection to our community.

"It's not 'seven degrees of separation,'" says John De Block, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Calera. "If you weren't personally impacted by this storm, you know someone who was."

In all, 62 tornadoes hit Alabama that day, killing at least 248 people, injuring more than 2,000, and leaving almost 14,000 homes wiped out or badly damaged. In Jefferson County, 21 people died. In the two areas with the most extensive damage?--?Pleasant Grove and the Pratt City area of Birmingham?--?close to a thousand homes were destroyed. The same tornado had just torn through the heart of Tuscaloosa, barely missing the University of Alabama. In storms in Cordova and Cullman, downtown businesses crumbled. Where the strongest tornadoes hit, in such places as Hackleburg, the destruction was near complete.

The event was so profound it involved us all as witnesses and participants.

"I think the tornadoes changed everybody," says Lisa Turley, the director of Project Rebound, a state crisis-counseling program that sprang to action after the storms. "We're all survivors in this."

ANXIETY

One year later, the most obvious change is the respect we afford the weather. Since 1950, Alabama has had more tornado deaths than any other state. But before April 27, many of us didn't consider ourselves personally at risk. Now, we're not so sure.

Vestavia Hills' school system quickly recruited Impact Family Counseling to work with students in areas affected by the storms. "They had kids afraid to come back to school and others who were coming but not learning because all they could think about was the trauma," says George Casey, Impact's executive director.

At Concord Elementary, students have bounced back remarkably well, but fears return when there's even a chance of bad weather, says David Foster, the principal of the school, which had two student deaths and 25 families with damage. Children whose homes were hit still have occasional nightmares, their parents say. But storms also unsettle children who weren't personally affected, Foster says.

Now, Foster uses his morning announcements to reassure children when the forecast is iffy. "We're going to keep an eye on the weather here in the office, so you don't have to worry about it," he tells the children. Otherwise, he says, "We have some that would worry quite a bit."

Adults are on edge, too. The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, a community counseling agency in Birmingham, has a number of clients who are survivors of last year's tornadoes, including some who work as first responders. Weather anxiety is a common problem. "When the tornadoes hit in January, it shook some of them up again," says Mark Phillips, a counselor at the agency.

Meteorologists and emergency managers expect our fixation on twisters to fade over time. But while it lasts, they are seizing the chance to preach the gospel of weather preparedness.

For James Spann and Mark Prater?--?the chief meteorologists at ABC 33/40 and CBS 42, respectively?--?it's something like a crusade.

Spann says some deaths on April 27 were unavoidable. But he believes most victims simply failed to heed warnings or to make choices that could have saved their lives.

"That's what haunts me at night," he says. "Professionally, for the rest of my days in this business, I want to fix this."

View full size
Volunteers from Birmingham Regional Empowerment and Development Center and Bethel Missionary Baptist Church pass out water in the Winewood community in January. (Photo by Michelle Campbell)
PREPARATIONS

For now, people are listening, and one result is that NOAA weather radios are selling faster than some stores can keep them in stock. "This is like we've never seen before," Prater says.

At just one Fox 6 weather event in Center Point early this year, the National Weather Service's De Block says, 1,400 NOAA radios were purchased. The station came back a second day and sold 900 more, he says. "That's 2,300 just in Center Point in two days," he says.

That's not all. Alabamians also are signing up for services that deliver personal weather warnings by phone, email or text. They're stocking up on emergency supplies, including helmets that UAB research suggests saved lives last April. And they're giving much more thought to what qualifies as a safe place.

Ralph Woodfin, whose Birmingham home was destroyed April 27, decided against rebuilding in his South Hampton neighborhood because of its history of tornadoes. He and his wife had all but settled on a house to buy elsewhere?--?until the tornado Jan. 23. Woodfin reconsidered the choice as he sat atop a washing machine in the laundry room, the most secure place in his temporary home in downtown Birmingham.

"If it's going to be like this," Woodfin told his wife, "we need to consider something with a basement."

Since April, thousands of Alabamians have gone even further and bought storm shelters for their homes.

Woodfin's South Hampton neighbor Jessie Calhoun, for one, will have a safe room in her rebuilt home. She blames last year's tornadoes on climate change and believes more disasters will come. "This world has been here a long time, and now, it's falling apart," she says.

Others share Calhoun's desire for refuge, if not her rationale. For companies selling premanufactured storm shelters, business hasn't let up since last April. "The main thing that I hear is, 'We never thought we needed a shelter until now,'" says Keith Gwin of Concord, who opened Central Alabama Storm Shelters after the tornado outbreak.

In what disaster officials say is just a small reflection of the demand, more than 4,000 Alabama households applied for federal grants to help pay for home shelters. Among the applicants on the list: De Block, who on April 27 worked a 12-hour shift at the National Weather Service and went home to huddle with his family in the basement, where he heard "James Spann calling out my street."

"We experienced it, too," De Block says of the tornado outbreak.

While his community was spared, the fierce storms made De Block and his colleagues increasingly bold in prodding people to take steps to protect themselves from tornadoes. "There's no excuse not to be ready," he tells audiences now.

The fact that predawn tornadoes on Jan. 23 killed only two people shows the message is getting through, says Art Faulkner, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

"There were many, many, many more people that reacted, that were up and were in their safe place, and that had a plan," Faulkner says. "We do believe that people are listening, and we are extremely pleased with that."

PHILANTHROPY

Some of the same feelings that led us to get serious about weather safety also made us more sympathetic to others who shared our helplessness that day. "This event really let people have the opportunity to realize we're not all that different," Turley says.

It triggered a tremendous outpouring of charity, with at least $30 million flowing just into the major relief and recovery organizations. Meanwhile, thousands of volunteers streamed into storm-stricken areas, says Jon Mason, director of the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

By early July, at least 70,000 volunteers had signed up for service?--?and that doesn't include all the volunteers affiliated with church groups and traditional relief organizations or volunteers who simply showed up without registering. Mason says the response easily has involved hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

The outpouring was so huge in some cases, it created problems.

"So many people wanted to help so quickly that you had to, No. 1, hold volunteers back because of safety," Mason says. "Then there was the whole herding-cats thing."

But for those in the business of recruiting volunteers, April 27 was a boon. In the months after the storms, more than 15,000 people went to the Hands On Birmingham website for information or to sign up for volunteer opportunities, says Bob Boylan, the county outreach coordinator for the agency.

Some of the new volunteers have now become old hands. After their big volunteer effort for the storm, Honda employees came back simply to clean and beautify Maclin Park, Boylan says. And some individual volunteers haven't missed a Hands on Birmingham event since, he says. "They discovered us through the tornadoes, and now, they keep coming back," he says.

As a board member for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, Neal Berte played a role in raising millions of dollars for tornado recovery. But Berte also spent a day clearing away trees in Concord, and he believes that kind of investment pays a different kind of dividend. "When you get involved, it gives you a connectedness you can't have any other way," he says.

Some of the bonds forged in the disaster continue to have an impact.

When Cindy Butts of Hueytown goes to Walmart these days, she is apt to run into people she while met delivering meals in Concord after the storms. "They remember me," she says. Butts delivered those meals through her church, Union Hill Baptist, which provided a range of assistance to the community. Although the congregation wasn't looking to benefit, Union Hill now sees some of the people it helped at its services. "We went from having 300 to 400 coming to almost 500," Butts says.

Officials also believe they see remnants of April in the robust volunteer response to January's tornadoes. In a number of cases, the volunteers were former victims.

Among the churches sending help to Center Point was Bethel Baptist in Pleasant Grove, a congregation deeply affected by last year's storms. The church had 39 families directly affected by the April tornadoes, and it became a busy hub for those bringing supplies and volunteers. Since then, it has formed its own disaster relief crew. "Just as people came and helped us," Pastor Rick Cato says, "we can go and help others."

NEW CONNECTIONS

In one of the most celebrated outgrowths of April 27, the storms fostered a multitude of new partnerships among government entities, religious congregations, secular charities, communities and individuals.

"We were reminded that we really could come together," James Spann says. "It was so darn refreshing. All of these issues that divide us just went away for a while."

Despite the extensive storm damage in its own service area, for

instance, the United Way of Central Alabama helped support recovery work in areas that lack Birmingham's resources, says Drew Langloh, the United Way's president and CEO. "We really raised money for the entire state," he says.

And while Temple Emanu-El is involved in many interfaith efforts, the April 27 disaster marked the first time it had sent money and volunteers to the Christian Service Mission, Rabbi Jonathan Miller says.

"When you offer help, people don't ask you whether you're Jewish or Muslim or what kind of Christian you are," Miller says. "They say 'thank you,' which is probably how God wants it."

Don Lupo, director of the Mayor's Office of Citizens Assistance in Birmingham, recalls an instance when the National Guard delivered supplies to Pratt City, but no forklift was there to unload the truck.

"There were several of us standing there trying to decide what to do," Lupo says. "About 50 Muslims came around the corner and saw what was happening. This man jumped up on the bed of the truck and ... he started pulling the sides off. The men formed two lines, and in 20 minutes, the truck was unloaded.

"We would still be standing there trying to figure it out."

Many believe new relationships formed in the disaster will be beneficial for years to come. Hopes are particularly high for the new community collaborations that have come from within devastated neighborhoods.

Efforts to rebuild have fueled a new neighborhood association in Concord, a new community network in Pleasant Grove and new improvement cooperative in Pratt City.

Alonzo Darrow, president of the Pratt Community, says the new organization unites churches, neighborhood associations and others in an effort to not just rebuild but revitalize the area?--?a much more ambitious work than any of them could accomplish alone.

"Everybody was doing their own little thing," he says. "It was about getting everybody under one umbrella."

Steve Ostaseski, principal planner at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, says each of the groups faces unique challenges. But the effort to confront the challenges is fostering the development of new leadership, initiative and skills within communities. "They kind of tapped that inner energy they have," he says. "They're understanding they can do these things themselves."

In a disaster so large, even well-established organizations found themselves stretched in new directions. The Community Foundation had benefit concerts, the United Way a telethon. Many learned the power of social media.

Among other things, Facebook and Twitter proved invaluable for delivering dire weather warnings. "You've got some people walking around today because of social media," Spann says.

Afterward, social media outlets were used for everything: to reunite storm victims with their pets and wind-blown belongings, and to broadcast communities' most critical needs. But sometimes, the fast-traveling tidbits created confusion, as when multiple people tweeted identical appeals for supplies, without specifying a quantity and without following up when the request was filled. As a result, a community needing 10 boxes of diapers might end up with 10,000, Mason says, while another area got nothing.

One year later, Mason's office is working with various groups to develop guidelines for managing social media. It's part of what Mason sees as the "long-lasting legacy" of a watershed event.

The watershed event continues to affect many Alabamians in intensely personal ways.

"I have had some depression from this whole experience," says Donna Sartain, the director of the Pleasant Grove Public Library, who lost a devoted volunteer in the storm and who had relatives lose homes. "It is very hard looking at the storm path every day. ... Some days, it is like I am seeing it for the first time again. I relive that day over and over."

Shelia Hurd is working her way through grief for her mother, one of two people who died in Pratt City. "I still have to keep moving forward with my life and learn a new normal without her," Hurd says.

By March, Project Rebound had counseled close to 23,000 people, Turley says. They are not getting over April 27 anytime soon, but they are getting through it as best they can.

"You've got to go on," Spanick says. "Right now, what we're trying to do is make new memories at this house and go from here."

Sitting on her kitchen counter is an inspiration?--?a ceramic angel Spanick found buried at the site of her old home after the lot had been cleared by a bulldozer. How the angel got there is a mystery; it did not belong to Spanick. When she wiped off the dirt, Spanick found the angel perfectly intact, without so much as a scratch. Spanick looks at it now and likes what she sees: a survivor.

Via AL.com

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- The Birmingham City Council voted down a resolution today that would have hired a private law firm as a liaison on environmental issues in North Birmingham.

The vote -- which was 4-4 with Councilwoman Lashunda Scales abstaining -- drew an emotional rebuke from Councilwoman Maxine Parker, who used her time at the end of the meeting to argue that White Arnold & Dowd's work is essential as federal officials focus on the area for possible cleanup.

"You can't tell me that you want me to continue to support my community and you don't equip me with the tools I need to do that," she told the council, continuing by calling out Council President Roderick Royal, who opposed the measure along with Valerie Abbott, Johnathan Austin and Kim Rafferty.

"Mr. President, you have unjustly done the North Birmingham community a disservice."

Royal said there was no need to pay White Arnold & Dowd an additional $250,000 when existing city departments could tackle most of the work the firm would be contracted to do, including aiding residents with federal grants. He also said some steps would be premature if taken before the Environmental Protection Agency completes its investigation in the area.

"It's not that the council hasn't been supportive," Royal said. "It's just on this proposal, there is reason to pause."
The EPA late last year initiated negotiations on a settlement with Walter Coke that would require that company to clean up pollution at its North Birmingham site and nearby. The agency is citing its power under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly referred to as the "Superfund" law, which allows the agency to force those found responsible for pollution either to clean up the site or pay the government to do the job.

In February, the council agreed to pay White Arnold & Dowd $50,000 to work on EPA-related issues. An additional $100,000 still remains in a fund set aside at the Regional Planning Commission to be used toward needs in Parker's district, Royal said.
Parker has also pushed for a new health clinic in North Birmingham, but Royal said there is another clinic nearby that can serve residents and that there might be more need for one after the EPA concludes its work.

"I do agree that we ought to be in a posture to do all we can," he said. "The issue is determining what that 'all' is, and that determination is only likely to come once the EPA has finished its investigation."

Mayor William Bell declined to step into the argument, saying only that he didn't have a vote in the matter.
Parker said she doesn't trust agencies to do the right thing, saying they've dodged pollution issues in her area in the past, and vowed to keep bringing the issue back to the council.

"We cannot afford to let our people continue to live the way they are living, in the conditions they live," Parker told the council. "Unless you live it 24/7 you can talk about how you sympathize, but you've got to be there to see what I'm talking about."

Via AL.com

Hoover to pave portion of Inverness Parkway

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

HOOVER, Alabama --The city of Hoover is pre­paring to resurface and res­tripe about 2.4 miles of In­verness Parkway in Shelby County from Valleydale Road to U.S. 280.

Linda Crockett, a spokeswoman with the Ala­bama Department of Trans­portation, said Dunn Con­struction had the apparent low bid of $787,000 for the work. Bids were opened on Friday.

Crockett said work should begin within the next 60 days and be completed in the fall.

Crockett said Hoover made a funding request for the project through the Bir­mingham Metropolitan Planning Organization, which determines how a pool of funds will be allo­cated for major roads within the Birmingham-Hoover metro area.

Tim Westhoven, Hoover's assistant executive director, said Inverness Parkway was one of the roads analyzed in the city's annual evaluation and ranking of roads in the city based on conditions.

Via AL.com

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama --- As Alabama's economy continues to recover from the recession, its major metropolitan areas are modestly growing.
That's the pattern suggested by a new batch of population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. It's the first set of numbers for county, metro and smaller population areas released since the 2010 census a year ago.

The numbers cover the period from April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011.

Among Alabama's cities, Birmingham-Hoover increased from 1,129,068 to 1,132,264, an increase of 3,196. Brett Isom, a planner with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, said Birmingham's growth continues to follow the area's major transportation corridors, especially to the south.

"Despite some of the residential population loss we've seen with Birmingham and some of the western communities, people don't seem to be moving out of the metro area as much as relocating within the metro area," he said.

Of the seven counties of the Birmingham metro area, Shelby County and St. Clair County both saw the most growth. Shelby County added 2,078 residents, for a total of 197,936. St. Clair increased to 84,398, or an increase of 563 residents. Jefferson added 545 residents, for a population of 658,931. Blount and Chilton saw modest gains, while Bibb and Walker saw decreases.

Among the state's metro areas, Huntsville added 6,100 residents, Montgomery added 3,405, and Auburn-Opelika increased by 2,684. Decatur, Dothan and Florence-Muscle Shoals also saw growth. Mobile has a slight .1 percent decrease of little more than 500 residents.

Statewide, Madison County topped the others in gains, adding nearly 4,000 residents from 2010 to 2011, followed by Baldwin, Lee, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa counties. Nationally, there were 38 counties in the South among the 50 fastest growing in the U.S. between 2010 and 2011.

Via AL.com

Mayor Petey Ellis of Sumiton

| No Comments | No TrackBacks
  • Petey Ellis, Mayor of Sumiton
  • Elected as mayor in 1992 and has won each election over the past 20 years
  • Owns Petey Ellis Automotive
  • Attends Sumiton Church of God and is a member of the Lions Club
  • Has lived in Sumiton his entire life

Mayor Ellis on making changes to the city: When I came into office we had nowhere to go but up. We had lots of infrastructure problems. We had to completely rehab our water lines. Sixty days ago we got our own sewer. We are addressing water meters and improving them. We just finished a sidewalk project and we're about to start another.

On the future of the city: The citizens of the city will vote on April 10 whether to be wet or dry (allow for alcohol sales). We are also looking to build a new fire station. We have a really good volunteer fire department and police department. Having Bevill State Community College bring in 700-800 people a day helps us continue to grow.

On being a public servant: You're a public servant first and foremost. If you can keep the streets clean and the people safe then that's what is really important.

Michelle Wilder

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

Michelle Wilder
CommuteSmart Marketing Outreach Coordinator

  • Hometown: Cullman, AL
  • Education: Bachelor's Degree in Public Relations from Auburn University
  • How long have you been with the RPCGB?: 5 weeks
  • Give a short overview of your job: As marketing outreach coordinator for CommuteSmart, I set up events and presentations at 40 of our partner companies to educate employees about our program. My ultimate goal is to motivate them to register and start alternatively commuting to work, which leads to fewer cars on the roads and improved air quality in Jefferson and Shelby counties.
  • What is your favorite aspect of your job?: I meet tons of different people every day! I love talking and getting to know others, and I am so passionate about CommuteSmart that it's rewarding when I help other people get involved and save money.
  • Tell us one thing we don't know about you: I can't look at something without editing it. When I was a copy editor at The Auburn Plainsman, I was nicknamed the "Word Cop" because nothing ever got past my red pen.
  • Finish this sentence: "Ten years from now, I hope to...":be doing something I love. My dream is to open my own bakery or bed and breakfast.

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

ThinkData Solutions, Inc. is a one-year-old technology firm specializing in technical training and custom application development.

Located in the Innovation Depot, ThinkData Solutions offers classes in its technology lab, as well as at client locations. They provide specialized training that meets the needs of customers on multiple levels and platforms. The lab at Innovation Depot was created out of a need to have a dedicated space for providing high-end data and training for companies and their employees. ThinkData Solutions participated in the RPCGB's Revolving Loan Fund and used the loan to create their technology lab.

ThinkData Solutions can provide specialized training in multiple applications including, Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Visual Studio, Microsoft Office Excel, Microsoft Office Access, Microsoft Certified Learning Solutions Partner, and Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer.

ThinkData Solutions president, Robin Hunt, has a dozen years in coordinating technology platforms for multiple companies around the country. ThinkData Solutions was created as a result of being in and out of labs across the country, and a desire to centralize the process into one location.

"One of our key features is productivity," Hunt said, "We are constantly adding new programs based on our client needs."

To learn more about ThinkData Solutions, Inc. and the work they are doing to improve the productivity of companies, visit their website or follow them on Facebook. For more information on the RPCGB's Revolving Loan Fund, please visit the RPCGB website.

Bike From Work Day

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

May is National Bike Month and the 9th Annual Bike to Work Day will have a new spin this year! Bike from Work will be held in the evening of Thursday, May 10 and include an organized bike ride to promote using alternative transportation for commuting to and from work. Hosted by CommuteSmart, an initiative of the RPCGB, participants will begin and end their ride at Avondale Brewery. The evening will also include a family-friendly celebration after the ride that will promote safe cycling in Birmingham.

Check back on the CommuteSmart website for more information in the coming weeks.

Air Quality Expo

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

National Air Quality Awareness Week is May 6 - May 12 and promotes a better understanding of ways the community can help to improve air quality in the region. To kick off the week in Birmingham, Alabama Partners for Clean Air (APCA), an initiative of the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, will host the Second Annual Air Quality Expo on Saturday, May 5 at Pepper Place in downtown Birmingham.

This FREE event will give attendees the chance to learn more about air quality and the steps needed for improvement. Highlights of the expo will include: Pepper Place farmers, free emissions testing for vehicles, viewing of several alternative fuel vehicles, CommuteSmart will be present to offer alternative commuting options, free asthma and health screenings vouchers, opportunities to learn about recycling and plenty of GIVEAWAYS!!!!

Check back on the APCA website for more information in the coming weeks.

2012 Clean Energy Conference

| No Comments | No TrackBacks

The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham will host the 2012 Clean Energy Conference on April 26 at the Harbert Building on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College. The one-day conference, sponsored by RPCGB, will focus on multiple clean fuel and energy alternatives. Speakers will discuss infrastructure and technological advancements, sustainability and the future of alternative sources on a regional and national scale. Attendees will have an opportunity to talk to vendors and see the latest clean fuel vehicles on display.

The conference will feature a keynote speech from Sid McAnnally, vice president of external affairs for Energen and all subsidiaries. McAnnally will discuss the national and local future of natural gas. McAnnally joined Energen in 2009 and is responsible for Corporate Development and Strategic Planning, Economic Development, Governmental Affairs and Communications for the company and all subsidiaries, as well as the Energen Foundation. Prior to joining Energen, Sid was the leader of the governmental and regulatory affairs practice group at Maynard, Cooper & Gale, P.C. where he represented financial and utility interests across the southeast.

Registration for the conference is $15 prior to April 6 and $25 from April 6-23. Attendance is limited to the first 100 registrants, but there will be day-of registration if there is availability after the 23rd. To learn more about the event, view the agenda and register to attend, please visit the conference page on the RPCGB website.