Outgoing Nebraska Emergency Manager Urges Preparation

Aug. 27, 2021, 5:12 a.m. ·

TUMA_Command Center.jpg
Bryan Tuma (right) reviews data in the emergency command post during the 2019 floods. (Photo: NEMA)

Listen To This Story

Over his seven year run with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, Bryan Tuma has seen about all there is to see when it comes to natural disasters, from floods to fires.

Tuma surveys 2019 flood damage from National Guard helicopter
Bryan Tuma surveys 2019 flood damage from National Guard helicopter. (Photo: NEMA)

The state announced Tuma’s retirement and named a new civilian leader to manage the 50 full-time NEMA employees.

As Assistant Director he led day-to-day operations since 2014. During that time the agency responded to tornadoes, ice jams, ice storms, gale force winds, the pandemic, and the record shattering floods of 2019.

Bill Kelly with Nebraska Public Media News spoke with Tuma as he prepared to retire after 40 years in law enforcement and emergency management.

As a Nebraska State Trooper he’d responded to many emergencies, including the tornadoes in Hallam and Pilger.

When he took the job as the civilian leader of NEMA, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency he did not fully appreciate the scope of the job once crews hauled off the debris and ambulances left the scene. He learned the state’s role in recovery could last months or even years.

Bryan Tuma: So I had a pretty good baseline of information. What I did not anticipate coming into this position was how complicated and perhaps consuming the recovery programs are. And so we had fairly, you know, as patrol, we were fairly engaged with preparedness and response issues, not so much on recovery. And so, learning the recovery programs, learning the complexities around those, and how we engage with local government officials and others that are eligible for those programs, that, you know, I was a big learning curve for me.

Aerial photo of farm flooded in spring of 2019,
Photo shot by Bryan Tuma during survey of damage from the 2019 floods in Nebraska. (Photo: Bryan Tuma, NEMA)

Bill Kelly: As you've gone along, have you found that each disaster response almost takes on its own character?

Tuma: Flooding may impact one area of the state more so than it does, you know, maybe the frequency of tornadoes or wildfires. So we see that, and we see that local jurisdictions really develop that capacity to deal with those types of events. And how we engage with those folks might be a little bit different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. So there is that flavor, and certainly the severity and the impact from each event requires a different response. Most folks, I think, in our position, and who operate in emergency management would tell you, you know, they can recall each event, some of the challenges and the complexities that were associated with each event and what was the response and then more importantly, what was the recovery like.

Kelly: In the history of NEMA, you're going to be going down in history as the guy who had to deal with the floods of 2019.

Tuma: Yeah. I think we did a very good job with the response to the event. A lot of challenges, it was difficult. But overall, I think the effort was very good. One thing that always sticks out in my mind on that event was a conversation I had with Governor Ricketts when we were essentially closing up a lot of the response activities, and we exchanged pleasantries, and then he said, you know, Bryan, I think we did a really good job on the response. But he goes, we're going to be judged by our recovery. And I think he hit the nail on the head. So there are challenges with recovery, because it is a long process.

Kelly: It’s still not over.

Tuma: It will go on for years.

Kelly: Does the State of Nebraska looking forward have to plan and consider a changing climate in addressing disaster preparation and response?

Tuma: Well, when you start looking at our data, and we have a hazard state hazard mitigation plan, and that's put together with in partnership with a wide variety of stakeholders, water management authorities, the NRDs, the Department of Natural Resources, and others. So you're looking at the impact of the disasters. So we do what's called a hazard identification and risk assessment, where we actually look at the data, it tells us where we're, you know, what types of events are most likely to occur, and what type of consequences we get from those disasters. And so what's our plan for trying to address those issues? Flooding is, is without a doubt, our biggest concern men, followed by severe thunderstorm type activity with tornadoes and high wind events.

Kelly: Has the discussion of the politics of climate change, gotten in the way of the disaster response aspect, with this undeniable trend towards more weather related events?

Tuma: Well, I don't think it's gotten in the way I think there's acknowledgement that we're seeing more severity with weather related events. As you mentioned, the politics involved in this, some people will attach themselves to the science of climate change, whether it exists or not. Quite honestly, I think we're looking at the data and what it tells us. In my opinion, what we're focused on is, you know, the reality that we're seeing more extreme events. The frequency is increased. And so we have to be prepared to respond to that.