January 31, 2008
Americus -- March 1, 2007, the landscape in Americus changed forever. Trees toppled, windows smashed, and homes were torn in two. Two people were killed.
Americus had an emergency plan, but how did it work? Was the community prepared? After millions of dollars in damages, WALB News Ten went back to Americus to see what's changed and asked the tough question "Are We Ready" if another storm made a direct hit?
The sounds and frantic calls for help March first in Americus seem like a distant memory.
Caller: "Dogwood Hills Road. A tornado came through here and I don't see the houses. The houses are gone. We need some help."
Caller: "This is Mitch Grant. Sumter Regional Hospital has just taken a direct hit."
Eleven months later the streets of Americus look different. Physical scars where the F-3 tornado ripped the community in two are not as easy to see.
As we ride along with Sheriff Pete Smith, the Sumter County EMA Director, he said, "I think at this point we're better than I really thought we'd be this far along.
A ride through the historic district reveals new roofs, a new gazebo. In Oak Grove Cemetery, new trees promise to improve the city's ravaged landscape. The duplex where two people were killed is being rebuilt. Winn Dixie is under construction and coming back along with many of the businesses forced to close their doors or rebuild because of storm damage.
A constant reminder of the dangerous storm remains, Sumter Regional Hospital, and even that's coming down. "It gives us an opportunity to begin seeing this ugly, old, damaged building come down and make way for that new Sumter Regional Hospital," says Sumter Regional Hospital CEO David Seagraves.
The last 11 months have brought questions over whether Americus was prepared for what happened March first.
"I don't think we were as prepared as what we should be," says Sheriff Smith.
"We've got an emergency response plan, but you can't cover every contingency," says Americus City Manager Charlotte Cotton.
Every contingency no, but residents had no warning a tornado was about to hit. The one emergency alert siren never sounded. The siren was inside the city government building. By the time fire fighters made it down the block to sound the alarm, there was no power and no generator...no way to warn people of the fast-approaching killer tornado.
"It works with electricity, so when the guys came to set the siren off, the electricity was off and of course it didn't work," said Cotton.
Necessary maps and other city information were also cut off with no electricity. A shortage of chainsaws made searching for the injured impossible.
"We had so many areas that we couldn't get to, we had no power, you had downed power lines," said the Sheriff.
Emergency crews found they couldn't even communicate with each other during the most critical time.
"We had some communication issues. Cell phones, radios, that kind of thing," said Cotton.
It's these problems both the city and county are now turning their attention toward and plan to correct before the next disaster.
"Same radios, same frequency, being able to communicate from one vehicle to another, and we've pretty much enhanced that to where we can talk to all of the surrounding counties," the Sheriff told us.
The county is pursing grant opportunities, they've requested 20 outdoor warning sirens with tone and voice capabilities to better alert residents. They're asking for 300 weather radios to be placed in government buildings, schools, day cares and nursing homes, and a new disaster and tornado shelter for public officials in the event of another storm.
"It takes a lot of time, effort, and money, just like I've been working on some reports for GEMA trying to get some money, and directed towards these areas," said Smith.
The hospital, destroyed when it took a direct hit it also looking at ways to storm proof its future building. They're getting a $300,000 federal grant.
Leaders say making sure they're ready to deal with future disasters is a slow, expensive process.
"I don't know if you'll ever be 100 percent perfect, but I think you've got to do everything you can to strive to have better radio equipment, better emergency equipment, generator, you've got to have a command center you can operate out of," says Sheriff Smith.
If another storm were to hit Sumter County today, while the sheriff's office would be better able to communicate, and emergency personnel would have the previous experience, other than the landscape, little has changed in Sumter County, and it could be some time before those changes come.
Both city and county leaders now meet once a month to discuss the problems that still remain unresolved. WALB News Ten is investigating several communities who have experienced storm to see if they've taken the necessary steps to keep their citizens safe.
WALB News Ten's concern for weather safety will also prompt a weather radio event at Harvey's on North Slappey, February seventh.
On Monday we'll look at what Ashburn and Turner County have done after a siren failed to warn residents of an approaching storm in December.