ATLANTA, Ga. -- Metro Atlanta residents remember all too well that the early morning sky was sullen and heavy with the threat of rain. Severe storms had been forecast. It was April 8, 1998, a Wednesday, destined for violent weather that thousands of victims can never forget.
Emergency personnel were shocked at the sight of the destruction left in the path of the storm system that cut through four Atlanta area counties that night. By the next morning, a tornado, or perhaps more than one, had descended from the overcast and brutalized areas of Cobb, Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb.
Whole subdivisions had been flattened. Businesses were blown away. Thousands of Metro Atlanta homeowners and renters were instantly displaced. Fortunately, only one fatality could be counted -- in DeKalb County. The toll was horrific:
More than 3,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in DeKalb; 1,250 homes and 700 apartment units suffered similar damage in Gwinnett;
124 residences and four business were damaged or destroyed in Fulton; 31 businesses were hit in Cobb.
The tornado hopped awkwardly through east Georgia, occasionally dipping down to touch other counties in its path, then disappeared over the coast. After slamming Metro Atlanta, the tornado left six more dead and massive damage in Bryan, Effingham, Liberty and Long counties.
So great was the destruction around Atlanta that engineers estimated it would take 189,600 dump truckloads, each averaging seven cubic yards, to haul way the remnants of the homes and hundreds of felled trees that made up the storm debris.
In the four Greater Atlanta counties, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), immediately began the funding of what became $57 million in disaster assistance.
Grants went to individuals and families, low-interest disaster loans were made to homeowners, renters and businesses. Assistance also was given to repair damage to publicly owned facilities such as roads, bridges and municipal or county utilities.
In addition, southeastern Georgia counties outside Atlanta received $2 million in federal and state disaster aid.
Gary W. McConnell, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), said that the devastation was the driving force behind the efforts to improve the state's warning and communication network. "Our primary goal is to save lives, protect property and to provide the resources to get the job done."
John Copenhaver, regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said the storm reinforced the need to "ensure that everyone has a safe place to go, with adequate time to get there."
Triggered by the storm and similar strikes in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina, FEMA quickly focused on severe weather preparedness and conducted a tornado summit at its regional headquarters in Atlanta. In partnership with the state, FEMA has provided nearly $12 million in fiscal 1998 for mitigation projects that centered on enhancing weather-warning systems.
Moreover, since 1990, Georgia has received more than $28.3 million from FEMA for such projects, above and beyond hundreds of millions of dollars more in disaster assistance.
Copenhaver credits public awareness of changing weather patterns and safe shelter techniques for improved attitudes. "While there isn't much engineers can do to protect property in a direct hit by winds approaching 300 mph," he said, "that type storm is very rare, and we're now devising new ways to help reduce damage and the loss of lives from lesser, but still powerful, storm strikes."
Copenhaver said a FEMA national initiative known as Project Impact is designed to create storm resistant safe-havens. Its goal is to reduce the costly, repetitive loss cycle that has followed natural disasters. "Project Impact is based on a public-private sector partn...