On March 20, 1998, a microburst tornado struck North Georgia. Ground zero was a couple of miles from my home and the path of the storm came right through my neighborhood.
Tornadoes are strange things; there is very little warning and they can destroy one house and leave the next house untouched. Twenty of my neighbors died that morning in just a few minutes.
It had been an unusually warm night for March. We had slept with the doors open to let some air in the stuffy house. I awoke at 6:35 a.m. to the sound of an explosion. I found out later it was the overflow trailers exploding at the school across the street. Had the storm hit two hours later, children would have been in those temporary classrooms. Had the storm hit an hour later, school buses would have been on the road.
That day, schools and homes were flattened and 20 people lost their lives. They don't name tornadoes; they happen too fast.
Rain was blowing sideways through the screen door of my home and the sky was yellow. My husband went to close the door and couldn't get there because the wind was blowing so hard. It was as if he was moving in slow motion. I worked for the local radio station at the time and I immediately called in to report the event. I found out a tornado that wasn't even on the radar had hit and there were fatalities.
I made my way in to work and covered the event throughout the day. When I returned home, there was a checkpoint about a half-mile from my home. The National Guard was checking IDs and wanted to be sure that only people who were residents were coming into the area. Unfortunately, looting was an issue. I always found it odd there are people who would try to benefit from destruction.
The Salvation Army had set up mobile kitchens in the high school parking lot across the street and the Red Cross was going door to door to ask if we needed anything. My house was fine, a few trees down and a few shingles on the ground. But across the street at the middle school, the caretaker and his family were killed and down the street my neighbor's house was destroyed.
Several of the local banks had bought blocks of hotel rooms and the local churches were asking for food and clothing. None of those rooms were used because every displaced person was taken in by a friend or a neighbor, and the local church made a plea for people to stop bringing food because people were taken care of by family and friends.
Local people got their trucks and chain saws and started cleaning up the mess and moving on with their lives. I got a call on my radio program from a fellow who said, "I waited for a couple of days for the government to come; they didn't, so I cleaned up my own property."
Local government got help from FEMA to clear debris. The drop-off point was down the street from my house; it was plowed under a few months later and is a soccer field today.
I'm not comparing the level of devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to my "micro burst" tornado devastation. Sandy created much more havoc. But they had more warning in advance and local governments should have done more to stock pile water, secure generators, food and clothing ahead of the storm.
I live in Tornado Alley. Three times in my life, I've lived through a tornado. Dozens of times, I've gone to my basement and waited for the storms to pass, gathering my family and any of the other neighbors who didn't have a basement in their house. A number of the neighbors' kids knew if they were home alone and the storms were bad, come on over the Zollers' house and wait it out. I keep clothes, water and flashlights in my basement to be ready for the inevitable power outages that come with this kind of weather.
In 1938 and in 1944, very serious hurricanes hit the New York City area with massive damage and death. There have been dozens of tropical storms hitting this region over the last 100 years. The problem with Sandy was the growth of the area and sheer numbers of people affected, the lack of preparedness and the time of year. Most of the time, a hurricane hits and when it passes the weather is warm and dry. This time it was very late in the season and these folks can't get a break with cold, wet weather and snow.
FEMA is important in the overall scheme of things, but it doesn't move fast enough. Local government preparedness and the ability of neighbors helping neighbors make the difference. Mayor Bloomberg, Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie have to work with government agencies and first responders as well as the state and federal government resources, but they also have to make it easier for neighbors to help neighbors.
Sandy is going to be a long clean-up, and Staten Island is going to be this disaster's "Superdome." Government has a role, but it should be to listen to the victims and facilitate what they need to get back on their feet.
I'll continue to be prepared in Tornado Alley and praying for my friends and neighbors in the Northeast.
Martha Zoller, "recovering congressional candidate," radio talk host and political analyst; Martha@marthazoller.com.