Help in Hall
Storms that required federal assistance in Hall County:
March 4, 1993: Tornadoes, high winds, heavy rains
March 15, 1993: Severe snowfall, winter storm
Oct. 10, 1995: Hurricane Opal; high winds, heavy rain, tornadoes
March 11, 1998: Severe storms, flooding, tornadoes
Jan. 28, 2000: Severe ice storms, freezing rain, damaging wind, severely cold temperatures
Sept. 5, 2005: Hurricane Katrina
Source: Georgia Emergency Management Agency
As millions are still without power and superstorm Sandy continues to plague the East Coast, Georgia remains largely unburdened by the weather system.
In fact, the only real effect Northeast Georgia has felt is high winds, downing only a few trees and power lines in Hall County.
But Hall County and its neighboring counties have not always stayed out of the path of natural disasters such as Sandy.
Since 1990, Hall County has seen six “federal declared disasters,” including a blizzard in March of 1993 and tornadoes in March of 1998.
During those storms, local and state emergency management agencies did not have the resources to handle the damage on their own and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was called in to help.
But it is only on rare occasions when the federal agency has to step in and, in fact, the majority of emergency management efforts are handled on the local level.
Each county must have an emergency operation plan on the books. In Hall County, the plan is a general playbook on how to handle various emergency situations.
“Ours is written more of an all-hazard type scenario,” said Hall County Fire Chief and EMA Director David Kimbrell. “It’s not a plan for a tornado, a plan for a flood, you know, it deals with everything.”
Emergency management agencies in Northeast Georgia may not have to deal with shore-blasting hurricanes like Sandy, but there are natural disasters that are more common in the area.
Ken Davis, a spokesman for Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said thunderstorms are the most common issue for the area. But, he said, it’s a common storm that can lead to more serious scenarios.
“All of Northeast Georgia is probably most commonly affected by thunderstorms, which could evolve into other hazards or disasters,” said Davis.
Tornadoes, flooding, ice storms and heavy snow have all been issues local emergency officials have dealt with.
But in most scenarios, they’re not blindsided by the inclement weather.
The National Weather Service’s Atlanta office, located in Peachtree City, tracks weather patterns in the state, relaying potential dangers to GEMA and local agencies. It’s the local agencies that make the call on how to handle it.
“We provide GEMA and the counties with the information on what we think is going to happen,” said Barry Gooden, warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service’s Atlanta office. “They make the decision as to what the actions will be. We only provide the information with the hopes they will make a sound decision on what they need to do.”
In Hall County, for instance, any tornado warning issued from the weather service automatically sets off the outdoor warning sirens. Anything more severe, potentially requiring shelter or evacuation, is handled on a case-by-case basis.
In such cases, Kimbrell said the Hall County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for evacuation efforts, if needed, and the school system is responsible for providing the vehicles to do so.
“Depending on the type of situation, they evacuate the same way,” Kimbrell said. “We just have to write one plan on how to evacuate and notify people.”
They’re required to test or implement that plan at least three times a year.
Kimbrell also said the county is currently working on establishing a mass notification system where residents could receive emergency notification via phone or email.
But Hall County has not required federal aid since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, the last reported tornado in the county was in August of 2008.
Those tornadoes, classified as EF1, caused more than $1 million in damage.
“Tornadoes are our biggest threat when it comes to damage and injuries,” said Kimbrell.
And, Gooden said, the spring and the fall are the most conducive for tornadoes.
“Tornadoes are always a possibility in Georgia — that can never be ruled out,” he said.
But officials said the storm-tracking capabilities have given emergency management agencies more time to prepare and notify residents of pending danger.
“Fortunately, the weather service is able to give us advanced notification that this is coming your way,” said Kimbrell. “They’re much better now than they were.”