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A Look Back at Dunwoody's Recovery from the 1998 Tornado

 An Editorial by the late Dick Williams in the Atlanta Journal Constitution April 12, 1999

One doesn't have to listen to the Clark Howard program on WSB radio to hear that species of American known as The Whiners.

It's enough just to follow the news or surf the cable box. (Click) In a nation of boundless hope, here's the Rev. Jesse Jackson urging us to keep hope alive. (Click) In a metro area that's projecting 1.8 million new jobs in 25 years, here's Mayor Bill Campbell of Atlanta proclaiming that every black person in town owes his or her living to affirmative discrimination. (Click) When disaster strikes, counselors are rushed to schools. (Click) "If you can't get help at ... seek help somewhere."

The notions of individualism and of turning to family, church and school for support too often are obliterated by the culture of victimhood, or societal subgroups based on us against them.

With that in mind, Friday, this day, deserves a red letter. Gov. Roy Barnes will be in Dunwoody to mark the first anniversary of the tornado that displaced 1,500 families, destroyed close to 100 homes and damaged 2,700 others.

It's fine for the governor to be there, but the state had little do with this one. The Dunwoody storm was unlike the standard disaster in which people stand before the cameras and ask government to do something. Or that modern clich� in which the governor asks the president for federal disaster relief funds.

Yes, Vice President Al Gore did fly over Dunwoody, but it was a private-sector recovery. It was the way things used to be.

Sure, government did a great job. Applaud DeKalb' s chief executive, Liane Levetan; the public safety chief, Tom Brown; and the public works director, Tom Black. No local government ever executed a disaster plan so effectively.

While Gwinnett County dithered, Levetan and the commission hired a private company, Grubbs Construction, to set about removing the trees and making rebuilding possible. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army touched more than half the victims, according to a survey in The Dunwoody Crier returned by 245 of the displaced.

But, even the relief agencies found a difference. When the Red Cross opened a shelter at Dunwoody High School the night after the storm, there were more reporters than victims. Only three people showed up for cots, and they were there only because relatives hadn't been located.

The victims of Dunwoody were insured, mostly prepared and protected by networks of family, church and synagogue. The religious institutions were especially important, providing meals, medical advice, help with red tape, spiritual solace and opportunities for exchange of grief, joy or practical advice.

Residents looked no further than themselves.

Kathy Florence established a recovery newsletter distributed by hand and foot that became a newspaper column. Fran Millar and Jamie Sibold got Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine's staff in place to mediate and handle complaints.

Above all, with minimal help from government, Rick Jones, Joyce Amacher, Chuck Trense, Donna Burt, Bill Robinson and others -- under the umbrella of the Dunwoody Homeowners' Association -- set out to make a dent in the more than 100,000 trees lost over 2,000 acres.

Replant the Dunwoody Forest has raised $189,000 since and has planted 10,000 trees, with thousands more going in this weekend.

It has been an impressive show of community resolve. In fact, it has been the millennial equivalent of an old-fashioned community barn-raising.

Dunwoody has seen a supportive government with an activist private sector.

How we might wish it was always that way.

Williams is publisher of the Crier Newspapers and host of "The Georgia Gang" on WAGA-TV (Channel 5). Contact him by e-mail (, or phone, (770) 634-8086.


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