The Lee County Commission voted unanimously Monday night to keep Rita Smith in charge of the county’s Emergency Management Agency.
“I hope we are all in agreement that we want Mrs. Smith to stay on permanently. I think she has done a wonderful job,” said District 4 Commissioner Robert Ham before the vote.
District 1 Commissioner Doug Cannon and District 5’s Richard LaGrand also spoke in favor of hiring Smith permanently, with LaGrand commending her work in Beauregard over the last two years dealing with the aftermath of the March 3, 2019 tornado strike there.
“I am humbled at the trust the commission has placed in me to continue to serve the citizens of Lee County,” Smith told the Opelika-Auburn News after the vote.
The new director told the commissioners that her office would host a remembrance ceremony March 3 at noon on Opelika’s Courthouse Square for the victims of the tornado. The program has not been settled yet, but she did say LaGrand would broadcast the event live on 1520 AM.
“We feel like we need to do something to let the families know they are not forgotten,” Smith told commissioners.
Full time, finally
Smith has served as interim director since former director Kathy Carson was terminated by the commission for not following county procurement rules when she purchased an ATV earlier that year. Commissioners voted 4-1 to hire Smith to take over on a probationary basis in February 2020 after one of her former colleagues turned down the job.
The Memphis native was Carson’s deputy during the response to the March 3, 2019 tornado strike that ravaged Beauregard and Smiths Station. Smith oversaw the emergency communications center set up at Beauregard High School to look after first responders, the local and national media that descended upon the scene, and coordinate recovery and cleanup efforts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Smith hit the ground running. She formed a strategic planning team to develop a three-year plan for her agency – acting on a request from Johnny Lawrence, the late commissioner for District 2 and a retired first responder. That work was expected to include all of Lee County, incorporated and unincorporated. She also worked on filling vacancies in the agency’s staff.
Smith worked with Sheriff Jay Jones and other officials on the search for 4-year-old Vadie Sides, who was found alive in woods near her Loachapoka home after going missing for more than a day in March.
The new director finalized federal funding last fall to build storm shelters for low-income homeowners affected by the March 3, 2019 tornado strike. The shelters’ costs are 25 percent to the residents, with the rest covered by FEMA. There is no cost to county taxpayers.
“Some of these folks are still traumatized so bad by the weather,” Smith told the commissioners last fall. “This is really good news for our citizens who applied and got approvals.”
Smith joined Lee County EMA in April 2008 after a five-year stint with the emergency agency in Monroe County, Ala. She has a bachelor's degree in Emergency Management from Jackson State University and multiple federal certifications in communications and disaster response. She has been married to David Smith for 30 years, with whom she has three children, a son-in-law and one grandchild.