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Our Views: Our stormy past

We're better prepared for tornadoes now, but Gainesville's spirit remains strong as it was in 1936

POSTED: April 3, 2011 1:00 a.m.

As the sky darkened and the air grew leaden on the morning of April 6, 1936, the residents of Gainesville felt something was brewing in the storm clouds that closed in.

But it was just a feeling, the tingling of senses tuned to the weather by years of agrarian instincts. There was no real way to know what was coming until it was too late.

In fact, the folks of North Georgia didn't yet know that the same storm system had produced tornadoes killing 223 people in Tupelo, Miss., the day before. It was poised to strike again, taking a similar toll.

Contrast that with today. A storm of that dimension would be tracked for days. News from Tupelo would be on every cable news channel and Internet site. Local TV stations would track the storm with radar, its laserlike eyes probing into the clouds for telltale signs of rotation and wind shear, weather terms unheard of in 1936.

No one knew of a Fujita scale then, the instrument now used to measure tornadic wind velocity. They had no clue that a confluence of F-4 twisters would link up in the middle of town packing winds that may have reached 200 mph.

In the height of the Great Depression, there were no TV stations broadcasting, no NOAA weather radios blaring warnings as the storm approached. No sirens wailed to alert residents of the calamity gathering on the horizon. Schoolchildren didn't gather in the hallways, heads tucked between knees, as they do now both in drills and real emergencies.

The people of Gainesville were vulnerable and unaware. That seems incredible to us in our 24/7 world in which we get the latest news on phones hanging from our hips. But 75 years ago, a crystal radio and a daily newspaper were the only communications from the outside world. Fast-breaking weather stories were unknown at the time; to find out what was coming, you merely looked to the skies.

Gainesville has long felt the sting of serious storms, before and since the 1936 storm. The tornado of 1903 took some 100 lives. Almost a century later, the 1998 twister barreled through North Hall County, slinging mobile homes, damaging two schools and killing 13 people.

No technology could have stopped the monstrous storm that roared through the middle of town that Monday morning in 1936. But with more warnings, folks would have been off the streets and out of harm's way. The Cooper Pants Factory where so many lives were lost could have been evacuated, or perhaps sequestered workers in a basement away from the devastating winds.

Also, building and fire codes weren't designed for such disasters then. Buildings then were mostly made of wood, not steel and concrete as they are today, and were unable to withstand the force of the winds. They also were fast to catch fire, and with little fire separation between them, the flames spread quickly.

Within two weeks after the storm, the city council met to work on updating their building codes. From tragedy comes experience and the kind of knowledge that can save lives for the next disaster.

These were the hard lessons learned from 1903, 1936, 1998 and beyond. Always respect the clouds, always expect the worst. We know that now, and when the clouds gather and the sirens go off, we take them seriously and head for cover.

And though such storms have visited our area often since 1936, we are fortunate that most pass after inflicting only minor damage and inconvenience. We now can prepare much better because of the modern forecasting methods.

Yet there is one thing in our modern lives we don't possess in more abundance than the Gainesvillians of three-quarters century ago. In the days after the storm, even as workers pulled the last of the bodies from the rubble, the townfolk began to rebuild. Store and business owners got busy and had "We're Open" signs up within days. A year after the storm, no one thought to mark the anniversary, a habit we have developed for all major events in our current news cycle.

Amid the horror and aftermath of a storm that claimed more than 200 lives - 203 officially, but dozens who went missing and were never found likely boosted that total - Gainesville licked its wounds, buried its dead and went on with life. It rebuilt, better than before, a baby step toward the modern city that is now home to nearly 34,000 residents.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt summed it up on his visit to the city two years later to witness its rebirth:

"You were not content to clear away the debris which I, myself, saw as I passed through Gainesville a couple of days after the disaster. You were not content with rebuilding along the lines of the old community. You were not content with throwing yourselves on the help which could be given to you by your State and by the Federal Government. On the contrary, you determined in the process of rebuilding to eliminate old conditions of which you were not proud; to build a better city; to replace congested areas with parks; to move human beings from slums to suburbs. For this you, the citizens of Gainesville, deserve all possible praise."

Ours has always been a town willing to roll up its sleeves and work to overcome adversity and rise to new challenges. We did it in 1936, and many times since when lesser setbacks threatened.

And with all of our radar, satellite photos and high-tech weather gizmos, nothing we have today can ever top the unbreakable spirit that survived the storm of the century 75 years ago this week.

This is the final legacy to take from the anniversary of that horrible day. Amid the pain of death and helplessness of destruction, hope came out with the sun once the clouds had passed.



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