Weather-Ready Gainesville, GA

“I must hurry, for there go my people, and I am their leader.” – sign on the office wall of Jack Townsend in the early 1970’s, when he was an associate administrator of NOAA under Robert M. White.


Years from now, analysts looking at NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation initiative through history’s rear-view mirror are likely to conclude this: that the United States built its weather-resilience from the ground up, one community at a time… and in some instances and important respects, NOAA/NWS (and other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security) didn’t lead national development of community-level disaster-resilience so much as they chased and abetted initiatives emerging organically.

They also may well conclude that’s not a sign that anything is or was wrong… instead, that’s as it should be.

Here’s one interesting example: the city of Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. Wikipedia lists the incorporated population as a little more than 30,000; that of the region approaches 200,000. The economy is largely built around poultry (bringing in some $3B annually), but the biggest single employer is the Northeast Georgia Health System with 5000 employees centered on a regional hospital.

In 1936 the fifth deadliest tornado in U.S. history destroyed the heart of the city and took more than 200 lives. An earlier 1903 tornado had killed nearly 100; more recent tornadoes in the area have missed the population center, but nevertheless injured dozens and inflicted millions of dollars in property losses.

Enter Mr. William Wittel, a retired computer-marketing and security executive currently living in Gainesville. After the 2011 Joplin tornado he’d started thinking about the vulnerability of the Gainesville regional hospital, situated near the track of the historic 1936 storm. He’d also thought to develop a family plan; what he and his wife would do if something similar threatened today. But then, sitting in church, he got to wondering… what about everybody else?

The thought nagged at him, then spurred him to action. He started talking with friends and then expanded the dialog to include business and city leaders. He came across a 2010 NAS/NRC report, Building Community Disaster Resilience through Private-Public Collaboration, and started calling around.

To hear from Bill is to get drawn in, energized. He got in touch with John Copenhaver, former FEMA Region 4 administrator during the Clinton years and Project Impact. He reached out to hospital leaders and to the poultry sector, as well as to emergency officials in Gainesville and Hall County, and to faith-based organizations and other NGO’s. Today an active dialog on disaster resilience engages the entire Gainesville-Hall County community. Bill would be the first to tell you… The work has taken on a life of its own; he’s just one player, giving things a nudge here and there, struggling to keep up. All of Gainesville is getting ready.

The Gainesville story is so good that the AMS highlighted it at the 2014 Annual Meeting of a couple weeks back. On the Saturday prior to the meeting Mr. Wittel briefed an AMS-NWS international workshop, which annually brings together leaders of National Meteorological and Hydrological Service (NMHS’) leaders from around the world as well as WMO officials. On Monday afternoon, the Gainesville police chief, the hospital’s emergency manager, and Mr. Copenhaver joined Bill for a panel presentation to the Weather-Ready-Nation Symposium.

The week following the meeting, they were kind enough to invite me up to Gainesville for the day. What an informative 24 hours! Coincidentally, it took place as the second ice storm to hit Georgia in two weeks was bearing down on the city, due to hit that evening and last into the next day and evening. My sessions started with a morning table-top exercise conducted by several of Gainesville’s largest churches with city and county emergency officials. A visit with Mike Raderstorf and his emergency operations staff at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center followed. Their facilities were up-to-date yet Spartan. Documentation was extensive and current. Two particulars that I remember: (1) Mr. Raderstorf frames his team’s role as enabling; they don’t respond to emergencies directly so much as they provide the resources the medical staff need to make themselves into an emergency-response team (this requires heavy doses of pre-event, scenario-based training). (2) As storms like this occur, the broader medical community across the region tends to shutter down, leaving it to the Medical Center to pick up the slack; their caseload spikes as a result, even as conditions worsen. While we were there, hospital staff had been sorting out who would stay overnight at the hospital over the next several days, and who would remain at home. (Mr. Raderstorf is former military/special ops; this experience showed both in the way he carried himself and in his fierce dedication to ensuring continuity of hospital services during emergencies.)

By mid-afternoon the approaching storm was tying up other emergency managers we’d been scheduled to meet, but we did close out the day with a fascinating and engaging interview with Mr. Gus Whalen, chairman of the Warren Featherbone Foundation, followed by a visit with the board of one of the organizations his foundation helps support, Interactive Neighborhood for Kids (INK).

Gotta give INK some ink. Picture a 25,000 square foot museum for kids, populated with areas where they can role-play and interactively learn about occupations they might one day choose: aviation, rail, and other transportation; poultry farming; school teaching; banking; health and dental care; the practice of law; entertainment; police and fire… You name it, INK has a few hundred square feet where kids can test-drive each of these myriad careers. Sheri Hooper, their charismatic CEO and founder, told me kids and their families come from as far away as Tennessee and North Carolina, all across the southeast, to visit as individual families or school and church groups. They have thousands upon thousands of visitors each year. The reason for mention here? Last fall they put on a one day event to highlight weather-readiness for the community; they’d like to host a significantly bigger event this year. They also have a NASA floor space that could use some refreshing. If you’re reading this post and can help, please let me know. If you can help but don’t let me know, you may find me calling you anyway. (You can run but you can’t hide.)

Imagine a nation of Gainesvilles. Imagine federal agencies, private enterprise, NGO’s and individuals collaborating, not in a top-down, command-and-control way, but in a supportive mode. Imagine a weather-ready nation.

That’s where we’re headed.

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