County will be the first in Georgia to hold such an event, which aims to help residents get better prepared in case of disasters
By MITCH TALLEY, Whitfield County Director of Communications
If a disaster hit Whitfield County tomorrow, would you be ready?
Less than a third of us could answer yes to that question now, based on a recent federal survey.
But that figure could change dramatically in the coming months, thanks to the Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency and several partners who announced today they will be sponsoring the first-ever Whitfield County’s PrepareAthon! in April.
In fact, Whitfield will become the first county in Georgia to hold such a PrepareAthon!, with three days of special events slated April 24-26 to increase community emergency preparedness and resilience through hazard-specific drills, group discussions, and exercises.
“The goal of Whitfield County’s PrepareAthon! is simple,” Whitfield County EMA Director Claude Craig said Monday morning during a press conference at the Dalton Fire Department on School Street to kick off the special event. “Build a more resilient community by increasing the number of individuals who understand which disasters could happen in their community, know what to do to be safe and mitigate damage, take action to increase their preparedness, and participate in community resilience planning.”
Also speaking at the press conference were Terry Thomas, Federal Emergency Management Agency Region IV Individual and Community Preparedness Division; Gary Kelley, Georgia EMA deputy director; Keith Stellman, meteorologist, National Weather Service, Peachtree City; and Patrick Core, chief meteorologist with Chattanooga’s WDEF-TV, which has agreed to partner with Whitfield EMA and promote the PrepareAthon! during its newscasts.
Looking on were several city and county officials, along with a class of first graders from nearby City Park Elementary.
“Emergencies can happen at any time and any place,” Craig said, “but practicing what to do in advance makes you better prepared to handle the emergency. Being prepared for disasters is a shared responsibility. It takes the whole community, all of us, working together to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disaster emergencies.”
A recent FEMA survey found that nearly 70 percent of those surveyed have not practiced what to do in an emergency or disaster in the past two years.
“Extreme weather events have increased in frequency in the past 50 years,” Craig said. “It’s more important now than ever to take action before the storm to be prepared.”
Between 1990 and 2014, Whitfield County experienced two tornadoes, 82 weather events that included high winds, 14 flash floods, nine floods, and 21 winter weather events or storms that caused moderate to severe disruption to the affected communities, he said.
“Today marks the beginning of Severe Weather Preparedness Week in Georgia,” Craig said. “This week is a dedicated time when all Georgians are encouraged to prepare for unexpected events, practice emergency plans, and become prepared. Each day of the week has a different focus topic to help the citizens think about what to do to prepare.”
To continue that preparation past this week, Whitfield EMA is partnering with FEMA, GEMA, National Weather Service, Whitfield County Local Emergency Planning Committee, and WDEF-TV, among others, to bring Whitfield’s PrepareAthon!, an innovative communitywide emergency preparedness campaign designed by FEMA, to Whitfield County in April.
“We will be promoting preparedness during that weekend in April,” Craig said. “Friday, April 24, we will target schools and businesses. Saturday, April 25 we will target the community with our annual Community Disaster Awareness Day, and Sunday, April 26 we will target faith-based organizations and work with our churches to get them prepared.”
FEMA’s Thomas commended Whitfield County for becoming one of the first communities across the country taking part in the America’s PrepareAthon! campaign.
“Your efforts will serve as an example on how communities can bring together stakeholders to increase preparedness levels at the local level,” he said. “And as the first county in Georgia to launch this campaign, FEMA Region IV will continue supporting your planning efforts. If the numbers here today are any indication, your program is going to be successful.”
GEMA’s Kelley said that his agency has made “significant progress” in reaching Georgians about the importance of preparedness since the launch of the ReadyGeorgia campaign in 2009. “Unfortunately, recent events, both within our state and beyond our borders, demonstrate the need to continue our efforts to educate and prepare the public,” he said.
“The Whitfield County PrepareAthon! campaign in April will be an excellent way to involve the entire community and prepare the residents with an opportunity to practice tornado shelter and practice procedures at work, at school, and at home,” he said.
Stellman said that Northwest Georgia is no stranger to severe weather. “It was four years ago this April that we saw one of the strongest, most intense tornadoes in the state of Georgia’s history strike just down the road (in Ringgold),” he said, “and it was on my drive here today that I was reminded by the scars of the tornadoes that had crossed I-75. So it’s those things that tell us that we need to be prepared and have a plan. That’s why doing this in Whitfield County is so important.”
Stellman pointed out that it’s not just tornadoes that are a local threat, though. “It’s flash floods, it’s lightning, it’s severe thunderstorms, and yes, of course, winter weather,” he said.
“I encourage all of you to become knowledgeable, know the difference between a watch and a warning, ahead of time, have multiple ways to receive weather information. Have a plan; have a plan ahead of time.”
Borrowing from the old firefighter advice to “stop, drop and roll,” Stellman suggested three words in case of tornadoes: “Low, center, head. Get as low as you can in whatever building you’re in. Go to the center of whatever building you’re in. And last and most importantly, cover your head; have a way to protect your head. ‘Low, center, head’ are three safety rules for a tornado.”
WDEF’s Core cited the importance of having an NOAA weather radio, calling it “a lifesaver,” and suggested residents download apps related to severe weather, including ReadyGeorgia (available at ready.ga.gov) and the Red Cross’s Tornado app (at http://www.redcross.org/mobile-apps/tornado-app).
Core also stressed the importance of having a disaster-ready kit “that you have handy not only in the schools, churches, and some of the ballfields, in the back of your trunks and especially at home that we can basically pull out whenever we need it and whenever severe weather hits.”
The Chattanooga TV station will promote severe weather preparedness in the coming weeks, he said, and is proud to be a partner in Whitfield’s PrepareAthon!.