Deadly 1998 Spring Tornado Remembered

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Release date: 
March 22, 1999
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ATLANTA, Ga. -- Killer tornadoes roared through Birmingham and 53 counties in six southeastern states this time last year, leaving a grim wake of twisted destruction, more than 100 dead, hundreds injured and federal and state disaster costs exceeding $179 million.

Within a tumultuous 60-day span, President Clinton responded to requests by governors of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee for help in recovering from one of nature's most violent spring rampages. Not since the Palm Sunday tornado struck Piedmont five years ago had Alabama suffered so much tornado destruction.

In Alabama alone, 34 persons were killed and more than 700 injured when tornadoes ripped through the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa areas April 8. Devastating winds, including a rare F-5 tornado with 300-mph winds, which occurs perhaps once in a thousand such storms, left losses in the millions of dollars.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) funded nearly $32 million in direct assistance to Alabama individuals and families, providing low-interest loans to homeowners, renters and businesses and replacing or repairing damage to public facilities such as roads, bridges, public buildings and municipal utilities.

"In response to such tremendous loss of life and property," said John B. Copenhaver, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Region IV, "FEMA stepped up funding and launched several initiatives to ensure that in the future more people have safe places to go and time to get there."

This includes the continuing work on development of high-tech tornado and storm warning systems. In 1998, FEMA awarded more than $82 million in hazard mitigation grants designed to lessen the impact of future disasters in the region.

Lee Helms, acting assistant director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, cited "a major partnership between Alabama and FEMA last year that provided more than $2.8 million for a variety of mitigation projects, including severe weather and tornado warning systems."

In addition to warning systems, the federal grants funded communications equipment for communities to ensure continued emergency communications after a disaster.

Since 1990, Alabama has received more than $16.5 million from FEMA's Hazard mitigation Grant Program above and beyond hundreds of millions more delivered in disaster recovery assistance.

What lessons were learned from the spring storms? John B. Copenhaver, director of FEMA's eight-state southeastern region, said he believes a new public awareness about changing weather patterns and loss prevention techniques emerged from the rubble of destruction.

"We can't emphasize enough that when tornadoes or other severe windstorms occur, people need to have a safe place to go with enough time to permit them to get there," he said. Copenhaver stressed the concept of FEMA's "safe shelter" plan whereby a single room in a structure, typically a centrally located bathroom or closet, is shored up to withstand windstorm damage.

"While there isn't much that engineers can do to protect us from a direct hit by a twister with winds that approach speeds of 300 mph," he said, "that type of storm is rare, and we're now learning new ways to help reduce human and property loss in lesser but still powerful storms."

Copenhaver emphasized FEMA's new initiative known as Project Impact, which is designed to help provide storm resistant safe-havens. Its goal also includes reducing the costly and repetitive loss cycle that has always followed natural disasters. "It's based on a public-private partnership that is committed to making entire communities storm resistant," Copenhaver added.

Last year's spring disasters also stimulated a renewed effort by emergency managers in the region to di...

Last Updated: 
July 19, 2012 - 23:02
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