It was shortly before midnight when a string of powerful tornadoes ravaged four southwestern Georgia counties on Valentines Day in 2000.
Like most people in the small farming town of Camilla, the Harrell family was asleep when the National Weather Service issued its first tornado warning a full 40 minutes before the first tornado struck.
The Harrells first realization that something was wrong was when they heard the sound of the freight train roar in the winds that destroyed more than 350 homes. The twister lifted up their mobile home and slammed it into the ground, killing their 8 month-old baby daughter and her mother.
It couldnt have happened at a worse time. The tornadoes came in the darkness, long after television was turned off and people were in bed.
Nineteen people died and hundreds more were injured that day. Sadly, most people didnt even know that a warning had been issued.
How about your family? Would you be prepared if this scenario happened here?
It has happened here. Two tornadoes have been confirmed in Columbia County since the National Weather Service started keeping records. Many people would argue that other tornadoes instead were attributed to dangerous downburst winds.
And according to the Columbia County Histor-ical Society, a tornado ripped through Appling in 1875 - before warnings were available - destroying churches, homes, schools and stores.
During the past two years, we have taken steps to help make our community safer:
We were the first in Georgia to obtain the StormReady Community designation from the National Weather Service, which assures that we have all of the dozens of required preparedness criteria in place.
Last year, 47 county employees and citizens were certified as SKYWARN Weather Spotters, and 23 were certified in Flash Flood Training to help us assist the weather service in issuing timely warnings.
Rain gauges are being installed by the EMA throughout the community to assist in measuring heavy rainfall that could cause flooding.
More than 400 NOAA Weather Alert Radios have been placed in Columbia County facilities, including public and private schools, day care centers, county offices, churches, medical and emergency facilities.
If you dont yet have a weather alert radio at home, please take the time this week and go to any electronics store and purchase one. The cost ranges from $20 to $80, depending on the type you choose. The NOAA Weather Alert Radio will sound an alarm when the weather service issues any watch or warning to let you know - day or night - about possible dangers.
Another major project recently completed was the construction of a model safe room which will withstand 250 mph winds. A grant enabled us to build the safe room in our emergency operations center for education about how these can be built in existing or new homes and businesses at a low cost.
Video clips of the construction process are being incorporated into a new public education program, which will be presented to community groups, organizations, clubs, and associations. We will also provide building plans and drawings to show how to create a safe room in an existing room within your home or have it built into a new home. There is a special type for mobile home communities.
Considering how many hundreds of hours we spend under tornado watches each year, just think about how much peace of mind you will have knowing that you have a safe place for your family to go to right inside your home. But remember, until you get a safe room built, you should go into a room in the center of your home, on the lowest floor, and keep your head covered if a tornado warning is issued.
Georgias Severe Weather Awareness Week this year is being held this week, with a statewide tornado drill being conducted Wednesday morning, Feb. 20. Citizens, schools, businesses, churches and government offices all over Georgia will practice their tornado safety plans. I hope everyone will buy a weather alert radio, learn tornado safety rules, identify the safest place to take cover, and practice your plan during the drill on Feb. 20. It can save your life.
(Pam Tucker is director of emergency services for Columbia County.)
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