There used to be a sense the Georgia coast was somehow hurricane-proof.
Matthew changed that in a single weekend.
The storm, which plowed into coastal Georgia as a category 2 hurricane on Oct. 7, downed trees and power lines, reportedly killed three people, flooded roads and left hundreds of thousands in the Coastal Empire without power for days.
In a sense, the recovery is still going on.
“We’ll still be dealing with pieces and parts of this storm for months to come,” Liberty County Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Hodges told a gathering of local department heads Monday in Hinesville.
Much of those “pieces and parts” are apparently related to paperwork regarding storm cleanup, which so far in Liberty County has cost about $2 million in debris removal.
Despite frequent references to the October storm, Matthew wasn’t supposed to be the thrust of Monday’s meeting.
The 2017 hurricane season was.
Forecasters are projecting between 11 and 17 named storms, with anywhere from five to nine becoming hurricanes. Two to four of those storms could be major hurricanes, meaning a category 3 or stronger.
Yet even once routine thunderstorms are more likely to cause damage these days, Hodges noted.
“Our weather has changed the past few years,” he said, noting thunderstorms are causing damage,with “high winds and hail and other damaging parts to them.”
Forecasters say the 2017 hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends in November, will be affected by a “weak or nonexistent” El-Nino weather pattern, which Hodges said means “we’ll be more susceptible to drought and more susceptible to large storms.”
Monday’s almost two-hour meeting included most county and city department heads along with representatives from power companies and health agencies. It was billed as an opportunity for department heads and others to discuss ways to better handle the next storm.
For those not in government, the meeting provided insight into a wide range of issues faced during large-scale disasters, whether it was in terms of manpower and equipment needs or simply staying on-message and avoiding sharing information on social media that might be misleading and cause headaches later.
“Facebook is not going anywhere,” Hodges said, noting some workers posted information too early, which led to confusion.
Some message issues were self-inflicted by higher ups in state government.
For example, Hodges said there is now no such thing as a “voluntary evacuation.” There’s only “evacuation” or “mandatory evacuation.”
Yet when Gov. Nathan Deal first announced the coast was under an evacuation order, he used the term “voluntary evacuation” which apparently dilutes the meaning for some.
It shouldn’t, Hodges said.
“I think the hardest part to get across to people is that a voluntary evacuation is simply the earliest point to get on the road,” he said. “You should go and go then, because by the time a mandatory evacuation order is announced, we’re going to have clogged roads and full hotels.”
In addition to knowing how and when to evacuate, and what to take, Hodges said residents should also be prepared to stay away for an extended time.
“It’s going to be hot, there’s likely not going to be any power or water, and coming back as soon as the storm is over isn’t going to do a thing in the world to change things,” he said.
Among myriad lessons officials say they learned from Hurricane Matthew is more training is needed in certain areas, such as working with computer software in the Emergency Operations Center, more radios, including volunteers with Ham radios, and having law enforcement and firefighters who evacuate return as a single unit ready to work rather than piecemeal.
Some lessons were a simple as requiring those not on duty to turn their radios off while they slept in order to free up bandwidth.
What’s more, the need for more boots on the ground upped the list of local government workers who’ll now be classified as “essential personnel” and able to return as soon as a storm is over to help with the recovery.
There’s also a need to be more selective. Hodges noted that local law enforcement and public safety agencies “beat themselves to death” trying to respond to calls both during and in the aftermath to the storm, but there’s a limit to what they can do and when they can do it.
“It’s not that we’re being hard-hearted, but there are just some things we can’t get to at the time,” he said. “After any given thunderstorm someone will call 911 and say a tree fell and it’s blocking a road or it knocked down a power line or it fell on my house. During a hurricane, trees are down everywhere.”
There were bound to be issues and confusion during and after the storm. Until Matthew, Georgia hadn’t been hit by a full-blown hurricane since 1978.
At some point a few days after Hurricane Matthew, word got out that the state had approved additional “DSNAP,” or disaster food stamps.
That led to the need to call law enforcement to the DFCS office in Hinesville because it had been “bombarded,” and people were fighting outside the office, Hodges said.
There also were problems with water systems — Hinesville’s master pump station went down the night of the storm, resulting in a water shortage and sewage spill. Two other water systems also failed during the hurricane due to lack of a backup power source.
County Administrator Joey Brown said public water systems have to have a backup power supply and officials are working to make that happen.
There also were instances where government officials faced with problems found solutions one way or the other, such as evacuating nursing home residents using Liberty County School System buses.
That was actually “Plan C,” according to assistant EMA director Larry Logan, who urged department heads to “know the need. Know what you need. We want to make things better if this happens again. We want to do better.”
But the local recovery, while far from perfect, brought out the best in many people, Hodges said, and he found much to be impressed with.
He praised emergency workers, volunteer organizations and a number of churches such as Live Oak Church of God, which fed thousands of people after the storm, and those who volunteered to help remove storm damage.
“There were a lot of post storm issues that we dealt with every day for a long time,” he said. “But I think we learned some things and really came together.”