It’s safe to say no city in America understands the fury of Mother Nature’s spring storms more than Gainesville.
Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of the 1998 tornado that killed 13 people, injured more than 100 and damaged two schools and dozens of homes in a swath across Hall and White counties.
As the storm struck just after sunrise — “Devastation at dawn,” The Times’ headline read in a special section published a week later — dispatch callers received reports of trees down and mobile homes upended. Soon thereafter, first responders began finding victims and the storm’s horror began to become clear at first light.
A memorial service to remember those 13 souls was held last weekend in North Hall. Also remembered was how residents, public safety officers and aid agencies came together in the hours afterward to help victims, and how Hall County again banded together in the face of tragedy.
Sadly, this town has had a lot of practice recovering from storms. First came a 1903 tornado that struck at New Holland, killing about 200 people. That was before TV, radio or even a daily newspaper in Gainesville so all we have are century-old news accounts of how it unfolded.
And we’re now in the days between the 1998 tornado anniversary and the one that struck 52 years earlier on April 6, 1936, still the granddaddy of them all. The tornado that struck downtown Gainesville that morning killed 203 people, left hundreds injured and leveled most of downtown and hundreds of houses. It remains the state’s deadliest tornado and fifth worst in U.S. history; the 1903 storm ranks No. 17, giving Gainesville two spots on that list.
That close proximity on the calendar reminds us this time of year is ripe for such storms. In fact, in a bit of irony, the 10-year celebration of the 1998 tornado was met with a fresh batch of storms that weekend, one of them ripping through downtown Atlanta, blowing out hotel windows and tearing holes in the Georgia Dome roof as fans hunkered inside during the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament.
The Times that day planned front-page anniversary coverage of the storm similar to this past Sunday’s. But when the new storms hit, a reworked version of the front page was necessary to reflect the fresh threat that thankfully created few problems in Hall.
And as history repeats itself, the same thing happened this week when Monday’s storms came barreling through Georgia in the hours before March 20. Northeast Georgia was spared this time, but twisters struck in West Georgia and the south metro Atlanta area, tearing up houses and businesses. Thankfully, there were no fatalities.
Tornadoes are so swift, capricious and powerful the only way to survive one bearing down is to be prepared and take appropriate shelter in a basement or similar structure. The wide gap in the fatality figures from Gainesville’s storms through the years proves that such early warnings are the only known way to potentially walk away from them.
There were no emergency sirens, cellphone alerts, TV news coverage or other warning signs in 1903 or 1936. Radar was still years away from its arrival during World War II, and meteorologists at that time had no means to measure storms’ potential, watch them form or quickly spread word to the populace. By the time the storms were upon the town and the sky turned green with boiling clouds, it was too late to seek shelter.
Contrast that with Monday’s storm arrival. Those watching Atlanta TV weather reports could follow the storm’s path on the stations’ sophisticated radar as it moved in from Alabama. Technology enabled meteorologists to spot echoes of swirling “hooks” in the cloud patters than indicated likely tornado rotation. Radar was able to determine where lightning and hail were growing intense, and was even able to pick up debris being blown aloft by the storm.
All this data could be pinpointed to an area no larger than a neighborhood or street so anyone watching (those who had power) could know exactly where the biggest threat loomed. One weatherman lamented what he was sure to be a tornado on the ground in a specific area; it turned out to be the very one that was striking South Fulton that moment.
It’s a fascinating thing to watch such powerful forces play out through the miracle of technology, but it also gives us hope that future tornadoes can end as Monday’s did: With damage and racing hearts, but without loss of life. There’s no way to protect a house, business or trees when a monster storm hits, but those can be replaced. Those who heeded the warnings and sought shelter lived to tell of it and bemoan the damage, and were grateful to do so. If only those in 1903, 1936 and 1998 had the same tools available to save them.
In a Times’ story from 2011 marking the 75th anniversary of the 1936 tornado, the final line by reporter Tricia Nadolny read, “This town will always respect a storm.”
Let’s make sure that will always be the case.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.