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Deadly Tornadoes Test Alabama Governor Whose Term Few Foresaw

Deadly Tornadoes Test Alabama Governor
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley gives a press conference in a destroyed area near the University of Alabama on April 28 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

May 20 (Bloomberg) -- Alabama Governor Robert Bentley was moments from going on television to warn residents about tornadoes ravaging the state when he picked up the phone in his Montgomery office.

On the other end, his wife, Dianne, held up her handset to relay a broadcast of a twister with winds of almost 200 mph hitting Tuscaloosa.

“I knew it was coming right towards my house there, and coming towards my children’s homes, and I had to get on television,” Bentley, 68, said in an interview in his office at the Capitol in Montgomery. “Was that tough? It was.”

What may be tougher for the first-term Republican is rebuilding Alabama while balancing the budget as $1 billion in federal stimulus money disappears. On April 27, more than 50 tornados swept through the state’s northern half, turning homes to rubble heaps, making forests woodpiles and leaving 238 dead.

“We cannot and we will not let these people down,” Bentley said in a May 3 address to the Legislature. “We will see Alabama is rebuilt.”

Few predicted that Bentley, a dermatologist who is a deacon and Sunday school teacher at Tuscaloosa’s First Baptist Church, would be the one leading the way out of the ruins.

He served eight years in the minority of the state House of Representatives, where he was known mainly for strengthening the rights of organ donors and funding a program that trains doctors serving rural Alabama.

Lone Survivor

“Nobody doubts his sincerity, but his whole experience prior to this was an undistinguished tenure in the state House,” said Larry Powell, a communications professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who is a former political consultant. “The others just sort of killed each other off and he was left standing.”

Granted statehood in 1819, Alabama’s economy was dominated by cotton plantations that relied on slave labor. Birmingham, founded in 1871, became a center of iron and steel production, the “Pittsburgh of the South,” and by the 1920 was the 19th-largest city in the U.S. It is overlooked by a 56-foot statue of Vulcan, god of the forge, perched on a 124-foot pedestal.

Even after the city’s industrialization, the state was controlled by white, rural interests that disenfranchised blacks who composed about half the population. In 1963, Birmingham became the focal point of the civil rights movement as protest marchers led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. were attacked by police dogs and firehoses.

Cotton to Cars

In the past decade, Alabama has emerged as a car manufacturing hub as Honda Motor Co., Daimler AG’s Mercedes Benz and Hyundai Motor Co. opened plants. Transportation, trade and utilities made up 19.4 percent of the state’s nonfarm employment in 2009, second only to government, according to bond documents.

While Alabama’s gross domestic product grew 45 percent from 2000 to 2009 according to Standard & Poor’s, Bentley’s first months in office were consumed by combined deficits of more than $265 million in the general fund and education budgets. He cut them by 15 percent and 3 percent, respectively, for the rest of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

Then, on his 100th day, more than 50 twisters decimated cities and rural towns alike. In Tuscaloosa, a tornado ripped a path a mile wide and six miles (10 kilometers) long, destroying more than 7,200 homes and businesses and killing 41. In the northern part of the state, Hackleburg was leveled. Twenty-nine of its 1,500 people were killed.

Aid and Comfort

Since the storms, Bentley has been on a whirlwind tour of his own, traveling to 26 counties to comfort a stunned populace. Bentley said his training, including a stint as a medical officer at Pope Air Force Base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during the Vietnam War, has helped him deal with emergencies.

“You have to think through problems, you have to do it quickly, and you have to do it in an organized fashion,” Bentley said. One of his first acts was to pledge that the state would pay the local share of the cleanup for the first 30 days.

“He’s promised all the resources of the state and he’s delivered,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox, a Democrat. “Governor Bentley has been there and he’s continued to be there for us in our darkest hour.”

On the evening after the tornado, National Guard troops were maintaining order and distributing food and water, as the city, without power, was shrouded in darkness, Maddox said.

Moving Mountains

While the city runs operations on the ground, the state has also coordinated the removal of 2 million cubic yards of debris with the Army Corps of Engineers. Bentley is pressing President Barack Obama to cover 100 percent of the clean-up costs.

John Zippert, director of program operations with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, said Bentley must be mindful of poor communities. Many residents didn’t have insurance, he said.

“The real question is, what is going to be the plan to replace all of these homes that were destroyed?” said Zippert, who is based in Epes, near the Mississippi border.

Bentley was born in 1943 and reared 10 miles outside Columbiana, a town of about 3,000 between Birmingham and Montgomery. His father, David, had a mobile sawmill and later hauled pulpwood, the governor said. During summers, Bentley helped his father and worked on a surveying crew to pay for college.

Bentley knew when he was young that he wanted to be a doctor, “a calling,” he said. He attended the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, majoring in chemistry and biology. After graduating in three years, Bentley entered the University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham.

The Girl Knew

Following his military service and his residency, Bentley moved to Tuscaloosa, where he and his wife raised four boys. When Bentley began his gubernatorial run in May 2009, there was little indication that he had a shot.

About three dozen people came to hear him announce his candidacy in Montgomery. The only person convinced Bentley could win was his 13-year-old granddaughter, he said.

Bentley said he took out second and third mortgages and a personal loan, used his retirement funds and tapped his life insurance policy. He loaned himself more than $2 million for the primary and general election campaigns, which has been paid back, according to Rebekah Mason, a spokeswoman.

Starting out with 3 percent support in the polls, Bentley pledged not to take a salary until the state’s unemployment rate reached 5.2 percent. The rate was 9.2 percent in March, 0.4 percentage points higher than the national average.

“People saw in me somebody who isn’t a politician,” said Bentley.

Chosen One

Bentley came in second in the Republican primary. In a runoff, he faced Bradley Byrne, a former chancellor of the two-year college system, who was endorsed by former Governor Bob Riley.

Byrne’s platform of changing tenure laws and allowing charter schools was anathema to the Alabama Education Association, which represents 100,000 teachers, administrators and support workers.

The AEA spent about $1 million on advertising painting Byrne as a liberal. One ad noted that he supported the teaching of evolution.

Bentley defeated Byrne by almost 57,000 votes and then beat Democrat Ron Sparks in the general election, capturing 58 percent of the vote.

The new governor’s term got off to a rocky start. In an inauguration day speech at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King was once pastor, Bentley said that people who hadn’t accepted Jesus weren’t his brothers or sisters. He apologized after the incident drew national attention.

People Are Listening

“He didn’t mean to do anything wrong,” said Powell, the UAB communications professor. “When you’re in the state House you can give a speech like that and nobody notices. When you’re governor, every word is noticed.”

The controversy was overtaken by Alabama’s Bentley’s biggest challenge before the storms: its finances.

Bentley, who has pledged not to raise taxes, has proposed a $1.8 billion general fund budget and $5.6 billion education budget for the next fiscal year. Some agencies may face cuts as deep as 45 percent.

Zippert, of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, said it is too early to tell whether Bentley’s governorship will be successful.

“He said Alabama was sick and needed a doctor,” Zippert said referring to Bentley’s campaign advertising. “He’s a dermatologist. Some of this might require brain surgery.”

Robert Bentley at a glance:

Born: Feb. 3, 1943, Columbiana (Age 68)

Party: Republican

Spouse: Dianne

Children: Four sons, John Mark, Paul, Luke, Matthew; five grandchildren

Education: Bachelor of Science, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, 1964; M.D. University of Alabama School of Medicine, 1968

Career: Founded Alabama Dermatology Associates in 1974; Alabama House of Representatives (2002-2010)

Favorite drink: Sunkist soda

Famous nose: Removed a precancerous growth from the proboscis of Paul “Bear” Bryant, coach of the University of Alabama football team.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Z. Braun in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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