ATLANTA, Ga.-- Killer tornadoes roared through three north Georgia counties--Habersham, Hall and White--and 50 other southeastern counties in six states beginning in February of last year, leaving a grim wake of twisted destruction, more than 100 deaths, hundreds of injuries and total losses exceeding $179 million in federal and state disaster dollars.
Within a 60-day span, President Clinton responded to requests from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee for help in combating losses and cleaning up from nature's most violent spring rampage.
In the three north Georgia counties, 13 died as a result of the March 20, 1998 tornadoes, which caused damage that triggered more than $6.2 million in federal assistance in those counties. Not since a 1936 tornado killed 200 persons in Gainesville (Hall County) have so many lives been lost in a Georgia windstorm disaster.
Gary McConnell, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), said that although devastation was catastrophic, it was the impetus behind Georgia's vastly improved statewide warning and communication network.
"With the improvements we are implementing, we are confident we will save lives, reduce serious injury and lessen damage to property," McConnell said. "These improvements reflect the commitment and hard work of numerous people from local, state and federal agencies, as well as the private and volunteer sector, to ensure that citizens of the state of Georgia are protected before, during and after a disaster."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) provided direct assistance that included low-interest loans to homeowners, renters, and businesses, and grants to communities for debris removal, or to replace or repair damaged public facilities such as municipal buildings and utilities.
"In response to such tremendous loss of life and property," said John B. Copenhaver, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region IV, "FEMA stepped up funding and launched several initiatives to ensure that more people have safe places to go with time to get there." This includes continuing work of development of high-tech tornado and storm warning systems. In 1998, FEMA awarded more than $82 million in hazard mitigation grants--grants designed to lessen the impact of future disasters--throughout the region, with a significant focus on tornado and storm preparedness.
FEMA, a major partner with the state, provided $12 million in fiscal 1998 for mitigation projects that included severe weather and tornado warning systems. Grants also funded needed communications equipment for communities for emergency communications in a disaster. Since 1990, Georgia has received more than $28.3 million from FEMA' s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program above and beyond hundreds of millions more delivered in disaster recovery assistance.
Copenhaver credits public awareness of changing weather patterns and safe shelter techniques for improved attitudes. Emergency managers in the region also renewed efforts to discuss ways of dealing with tornadoes, and a tornado summit was held at FEMA's Region IV headquarters in Atlanta, focusing on better warning systems and the "safe room" concept.
"While there isn't much that can done to protect property in a direct hit by a twister with winds that approach 300 mph," he said, "that type storm is very rare, and we're now aware of new ways to help reduce the loss of lives in lesser but still powerful storm strikes." FEMA's Project Impact, a new concept to attack repetitive disaster loss cycles, provides additional funding strength and cooperative benefits toward this goal.
"Project Impact is based on a public-private sector partnership that is committed to making entire communities storm resistant," Copenhaver added. "We've prov...