February 7, 2008
Camilla -- When two tornados ripped through Mitchell County and south Georgia in 2000 it was an event unequaled in 50 years. Twenty people were killed, 13 in Mitchell County and as many as 250 homes were destroyed.
Since then, the county has made an effort to educate residents and with recovery funds have put in two weather alert sirens, but their big focus has been getting a weather radio inside each Mitchell County home.
Nearly eight years later, the threat of severe weather in Mitchell County puts people on edge. The freight train sound of the F-3 tornado that rolled through Camilla at midnight still rings in the ears of survivors along with the images and memories of the 13 who died. 250 homes were destroyed.
Johnny Thomas' double wide mobile home was one of them. "Me and my wife we just fell on the floor there in the bedroom. It lifted up like it, lifted up and set back down on the other side of the road over there."
The Thomas' rebuilt that home and in their bedroom added the one thing, they count on to keep them safe. "We have a weather radio," Johnny said.
The focus of the county since 2000, has been to get as many weather radios into as many homes and public buildings as they can. Like the High School, all Mitchell County Schools have weather radios.
"We're real big on weather radio's and taking personal responsibility," says Anne Lamb, Mitchell County EMA Director.
That's because in a county as rural at Mitchell County, weather sirens, just aren't an effective tool. "The problem with sirens, people's homes are built so well now they can't hear them. People in their automobiles they can't hear, they have their TV's on, they have their radio's on in their cars, and they can't hear the message, they don't know what the siren means," says Lamb.
They're also not cost effective for a small county at $130,000 per siren.
"Well a weather radio for $30, that's in your personal home or wherever at your business where you take care of people, a lot cheaper and a lot more effective because you're getting the message straight from the National Weather Service as soon as they know it they put it out and you hear it and you can take action," says Lamb.
They've also equipped their new Emergency Management Center and 911 call center, a result of the 2000 tornado, with computers with color radar and information direct from the National Weather Service.
"We also have a computer program that prints any weather forecast that the National Weather Service puts out. That is very, very helpful to us relaying to the public safety folks in general to say hey this is what's going on.
Those in the county with scanners hear the warnings too. "There are a lot of citizens that have scanners and things like that, they also listen and hear the weather warnings were able to put out to not just public safety, but the public in general," said Clark Harrell, Mitchell County 911 Director.
The threat of severe weather is constant, that's why Mitchell County applied for another GEMA grant to get another thousand weather radios for the county. After eight years some have worn out, like the one in the commissioners office. Families know they need to take responsibility when the weather looks severe.
"When it clouds up, and the weather looks dangerous see what you can find out, turn on your television, turn on the radio, get the news," Lamb said.Residents like Johnny Thomas take that responsibility seriously. When the Thomas' rebuilt, they added a safe room. "It's sort of like a tomb, just blocked up, nothing but blocks and they just seal it in just like another room. The bathroom we have is the safe room."
They also used hurricane brackets to secure the roof. What the residents have learned through experience and what Mitchell County has done with weather radios appears to be working. When the county was hit again in 2003 with a tornado just as powerful as the one in 2000, the death toll was significantly less, four people were killed.
Since then in the following two tornados in 2005 and just last March, no one was killed. Mitchell County considers that a success.
We also questioned Mitchell County about an automated telephone system that could be used to call residents and alert them in the event of severe weather. Anne Lamb said they're not sure that it's any more reliable than weather radios or word of mouth.
Albany feels differently and is pursuing a system. We'll look at what south Georgia's largest city is doing to protect its citizens February 11th.