After searching for funding for nearly a decade, Mobile County Commissioners say they’ve found the $10 million needed to construct an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) that will serve as the base of operations for local governments during natural or man-made disasters.
An EOC is a centralized location used for the coordination of response and recovery processes during an emergency, but county officials have long called the current facility used by the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) inadequate.
Located on McGregor Avenue, the facility was first constructed in 1952. Deputy EMA Director Mike Evans said the existing facility is functional, but can be constraining due to its size. Evans said the 7,500-square-foot building averaged 80 people when fully active during hurricanes Ivan and Katrina.If all goes according to plan, Commissioners will vote to advertise bids for a more spacious and “attractive” facility at their next regular meeting May 9. The construction of the facility is scheduled to be completed in 2018.
Under the current plans for construction, the new facility would increase to 32,000 square feet to include more adequate sleeping, kitchen and restroom accommodations as well technical upgrades that have evolved since the facility on McGregor was built 60 years ago.
According to Evans, the new features would help officials better serve Mobile County’s 421,000 residents during a disaster of any kind.“Mobile’s a large, populated area on the Gulf of Mexico — the biggest between Tampa and New Orleans,” Evans said. “Tropical storms, hurricanes, petrochemical manufacturing, a robust transportation network, the port — all of these things could lead to potential incidents or disasters that we would all have to respond to in taking care of our citizens.”
Funding the EOC
While the need has been talked about for almost 10 years, the funding and agreements necessary to make the plan a reality have failed to come together. Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said she made building a new EOC “a personal crusade” when she was first elected in 2007.
However, the funding proved to be more difficult to obtain than originally thought. Back in 2008, the county received Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding by way of two grants through the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA).
At roughly $2 million in total, just under $800,000 of those grant monies has already been used to design a structural plan for the EOC facility. Based on those plans, the project was initially estimated at $15 million.
In previous discussions, Commission President Jerry Carl had criticized that number for being too high. Following the county’s press conference on Tuesday, he said he never doubted the need for the facility upgrades.
“In a hurricane-prone area like this, we need it. We have to be ready,” Carl said. “One thing I’m proud of on this particular project is that it started at $15 million, and we have done some trimming to get it down to $10 million – two-thirds down from where it was originally started, which is always a good thing for the taxpayers.”
Even with the cuts, the $10 million took multiple partners and required some finagling on the county’s part. With the remaining $1.2 million of ALEA funding, County Engineer Joe Ruffer told commissioners in late 2014 the county would only need $7 million for its commitment to the project.
At the time, Ruffer said $2.6 million in Capital Improvement Funds (CIP) originally slated for roadwork could be allocated to the EOC because the funding for those projects had been covered in the Pay As You Go program. Another $5.5 million was included in a $31.5 million bond the county acquired in 2014.
The city of Mobile will also be contributing $500,000 to the construction of the facility in its next two budget years, which is a significantly smaller contribution than the $7 million figure discussed in years past.
Despite the downgrade in its cash contribution, the city has previously donated the 8.3 acres of land for the EOC’s building site on Zeigler Boulevard, where it will sit adjacent to the Mobile County Communications Center and NOAA’s Disaster Response Center.
At the press conference, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the project was significant because the EOC would house “every aspect of running the city” during a crisis.“Being able to house the leadership and decision makers in a safe locations along with the necessary support personnel is absolutely crucial from a command standpoint, Stimpson said. “The left hand has got to know what the right hand is doing. All the cities in Mobile County will benefit from this because of the new communications capacity this will afford us.”
Though there’s no written agreement, the Mobile County Communications District will likely be indirectly contributing $1.3 million to the facility as well to purchase the old EOC facility — an amount that’s been budgeted for more than five years.
When asked about the old facility, Evans said MCCD and the EMA were both looking at keeping the facility on McGregor as a second location in case either facility was “rendered incapable of performing its functions.”
On Tuesday, MCCD’s Acting Director Charlie McNichol said, “that’s currently the plan.”
“If the County Commission, in fact, moves forward with the plan to build a new EOC, I would imagine that the MCCD Board will consider whether or not the District will move forward with acquiring the existing EOC on McGregor Ave,” McNichol said via email.
When the MCCD’s board first began budgeting to contribute to the purchase, Ruffer was serving on that board as well as the EMA’s board. Though he voluntarily stepped down from four uncompensated county boards in March of 2015, Ruffer was reappointed to the EMA board last December by a 2-1 vote of the County Commission.
When asked about her vote, Commissioner Connie Hudson said the construction of the EOC was one of her main reasons for reappointing Ruffer, whose engineering department will also oversee the bidding and construction process.
“During his tenure on that board, he’s been a part of the planning for the EOC,” Hudson said at the time. “It only stands to reason that, with his qualifications and experience, he be the one to represent the county during the construction process.”