Despite three in-home rescues and lots of heavy wind and rain Sunday and Monday, Liberty County Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Hodges said Hurricane Irma wasn’t as bad as expected, thanks in part to last year’s Hurricane Matthew.
Hodges and Liberty County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette said Tuesday they knew of no injuries and only minimal damage, besides flooding that had not been totally assessed Tuesday.
Matthew, which hit Oct. 7, 2016, made emergency personnel and residents more aware of what to expect and prepare for as Hurricane Irma approached, Hodges said.
First, Hodges said, evacuation procedures have improved significantly after lessons were learned from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
“We tried to evacuate three states at one time and what we caused was a parking lot on our interstates,” he said about Floyd. “People could not get to where they needed to be.”
After Floyd, steps were put in place to work with other states and counties’ emergency management agencies.
“The worst thing that can happen is for one state to not coordinate things well and start stopping people,” he said. “We call each other, set those arrangements, like the I-16 contra-flow. We talk about that. From the time the hurricane (Irma) started, we started calling each other locally and talking to our counter parts.”
After Floyd, he said, people were weary of evacuating and not exposed to another potentially damaging storm until Matthew, more than 15 years later.
Hodges said some people stayed but later regretted the decision.
“And we can tell that with Irma,” he said. “People left. They heeded the warnings.”
He acknowledged that some people stayed this time, but that they appeared to be prepared and acted responsibly where they sheltered.
He said emergency workers did rescue people from three homes during Irma, not because people were in jeopardy, but that they were trapped in their homes by high water.
Hodges said Irma’s impact was much different than Matthew’s.
“The two hurricanes could not have been more different,” he said. “Matthew brought in a lot of rain and a lot of wind. Irma has brought in a tremendous amount saltwater inundation from storm surge. Now there was some wind damage and we got a little over six inches of rain or so. But it was a different storm and definitely showed us a different side of what damage we can get. There was a fair amount of destruction on the east side of the county from the storm surge.
Hodges said they did get reports of structures that were completely damaged or experienced flooding that residents had not experienced before.
Matthew’s impact led to 200,000 cubic tons of tree and debris removal from the area.
“Irma doesn’t even come close,” Hodges said. “We are not even calling in our debris contractor. It’s something that we can handle on our own. This was nothing like Matthew.”
However, Irma did impact the coastal areas of the county and Hodges said it is still too early to determine if there will be any long term environmental impact.
“We don’t know yet because you don’t get just one tide like that,” he said. “It will be repeated and until it subsides completely you don’t know exactly what it’s done.”
Hodges said it helped that Governor Nathan Deal was able to get the area declared a federal emergency prior to Irma’s landfall.
“During Matthew we got declared four days after the hurricane,” he said. “So you pretty much had to sit around for four days and think who is going to take care of this clean up. We got declared ahead of time so that opened the doors for us to do things quickly and that’s been wonderful.”
Hodges said they are still in the midst of completing damage assessments. It is still too early to know if FEMA will offer individual assistance to those with damages from the storm.
He said folks should start calling their insurance companies and file claims for damages.
Deputy Director Larry Logan commended county and city leaders for being proactive in communicating update through their various social media accounts. He said it cut down the amount of calls by half compared to Matthew.
Lovette also praised workers, especially for the response to the flooding.
“It was more than I ever thought I’d see,” the chairman said. “But people handled it well, especially from the road department and the others who pitched in to help.”
Hodges said he still worries about getting a direct hit.
“We’ve been shown now that we can get the wind, we can get the rain and we can get the storm surge...all the components,” he said. “If we were to ever have a direct hit, a hurricane with all those components at once… I certainly worry about that.