Tornadoes hamper critical federal operations in Alabama

Once again, Mother Nature proves to be the ultimate terrorist. The tornadoes and storms that swept through the South on Wednesday night and Thursday killed more than 200 people and left a million without electricity. While beleaguered residents came to grips with unimaginable devastation, federal leaders grappled with a range of challenges after key agencies in Huntsville, Ala., lost power, creating operational challenges and an information vacuum.

Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned the public that more devastating storms were on the way, even as emergency workers responded to overwhelming damage and the death toll mounted. Fugate traveled to Alabama on Thursday to meet with Gov. Robert Bentley and other state and local officials to help coordinate the federal response to the disaster.

Northern Alabama has become a major hub for federal operations, especially since the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission required consolidation of key military and space operations at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

A report by the Huffington Post showed dramatic video of a tornado ripping through Huntsville: (Full-sized video is available here.) Agencies affected by the power outages and regional devastation included the Marshall Space Flight Center, which has been providing support to engineers at Florida's Kennedy Space Center as they prepared to launch the Endeavor shuttle on Friday afternoon; the Army Materiel Command, which provides critical logistic support to troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere; and the Missile Defense Agency. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned utility about 30 miles west of Huntsville, was forced to conduct an emergency shutdown of three nuclear reactors after severe storms on Wednesday cut off power to the plants.

Officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said they were monitoring the situation at the Browns Ferry nuclear power plant, and noted the agency's senior resident inspector was in the control room when the plant lost power.

Widespread power loss sent ripple effects throughout the region. Businesses were shuttered, and local officials imposed a curfew on citizens, requesting that they stay home and conserve fuel and water, according to the Alabama online news blog al.com.

In addition to the federal closures, major defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, ceased operations in Northern Alabama, according to a news report from WAFF, a local television station.

A spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency on Thursday said Redstone Arsenal would be closed at least through Friday and that employees had been told to stay home. A NASA spokesman in an email said it is unclear when the Marshall Space Flight Center would reopen. "The situation on the ground in Alabama is evolving as utilities crews work to clean up debris and restore power to the area. As electrical power returns and the situation stabilizes further, decisions will be made about reopening the center," wrote Daniel Kanigan, a public affairs specialist at Marshall.

Nonetheless, NASA officials said the closure of Marshall would not derail plans to launch the space shuttle Endeavor on Friday from Kennedy Space Center as planned.

President Obama, who declared a state of emergency for Alabama late Wednesday, said he would travel and meet with state officials on Friday and view the damage.

Erin Dian Dumbacher and Joseph Marks contributed to this report.

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