Originally created 04/11/98

Emergency workers stressed



SAVANNAH, GA. -- While Thursday's deadly tornadoes are gone, the mess they left behind isn't -- and state workers and volunteers are having some of the busiest months they can remember.

That's because in addition to the storms, they were still cleaning up the aftermath of recent heavy rains, flooding and tornadoes in other parts of the state.

"We have people going for 22 days without a day off, and 16-hour days are the rules as opposed to the exception," said Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

Only a few weeks earlier, heavy rain and flooding made much of the state a disaster area. Thursday's storm system -- the same one that claimed lives in Mississippi and Alabama -- brought the total number of Georgia counties considered disaster areas by the federal government to 99 out of 159, according to statistics provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We've had a challenging few weeks. We started out the month of March with floods, then moved to northeast Georgia with tornadoes, now we've gotten this," said Weiss.

About 800 emergency workers are cleaning up debris and trying to restore power to at least 23,000 residences affected by the storm. Hundreds of volunteers are seeking out those in need - providing shelter, food, clothing and counseling.

Besides trying to make life livable again for storm victims, federal workers are also trying to figure out just how much monetary damage the storm system caused.

Right now, that's almost impossible, said Weiss, who claims he needs a "wasted" calculator for an estimate.

"It's really hard to come up a good figure right now because there are so many variables involved," he said.

And as the situation changes, so do the hours of emergency workers. What was once a morning to late afternoon office job becomes a 12- to 16-hour shift.

"You have to reprogram yourself. It's a change in your body, both mentally and physically," said Gracia Szczech, a planner and exercise coordinator for GEMA.

She's just one of hundreds who've been working non-stop for more than a month. In recent weeks, she arrived at work dressed for a day in the office -- only to be shuttled off to White County where a tornado hit.

"I got in the van and went in high heels and a skirt and was in the mud at a command post," she said.

But Szczech doesn't want any pity.

"To me, it's more of what I'm doing for the victims. This is why we came to this agency. We knew what we were getting into. We know it's not going to last forever," said Szczech, also a former disaster specialist with the Savannah chapter of the American Red Cross.

There too, volunteers are working hard, often giving up days off and weekends to help victims, said Red Cross public support associate Donnie Cox.

"It's been pretty hectic. Our people are running out of the ability to get off work. They're tired," she said.

Normally, out of a roster of 400, anywhere from 50 to 100 trained disaster volunteers are available when disaster strikes. But now, in light of recent weather, those numbers are dwindling.

"We've been hit so hard. People really put in an effort to help out with the floods. Then this comes and they can't get out of work," she said.

"We're bringing in people from all over the nation to help out because the local people have been all used up."

It's no wonder emergency workers and volunteers in this region are working hard, said Milton Brown, regional climatologist with the Southeast Regional Climate Center in Charleston, S.C.

There were fewer than 30 tornadoes that hit southeast Georgia from 1950 to 1990 -- none of them very serious, he said.

"I've been here in South Carolina observing the weather since 1965. I can't remember any real bad ones to hit (that area)," he said.

More information

Numbers to call

-- Residents whose homes were damaged by Thursday morning's tornado are eligible for federal disaster aid. To apply, call the Federal Emergency Management Agency hotline at 1-(800)-462-9029.

Questions

-- Experiencing difficulty reaching your insurance company? Call Consumer Services Hotline at (404) 656-2070 or toll free at 1-(800)-656-2298. Phone lines are open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday-Friday.