Bryan County Emergency Management Agency Director Jim Anderson invited the public last week to two briefings on hurricane preparedness – one on each end of the county.
Nobody showed up.
That’s not especially surprising, given the blase attitude many in Coastal Georgia have toward hurricanes. It may even be understandable.
The last time Georgia felt the full wrath of a hurricane was in 1978 when Hurricane David, a Category II storm, blew into Savannah. The last mandatory evacuation occurred in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd appeared to be making its way toward the Georgia coast.
Then, more than 3 million people from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina jammed highways and Interstate 95 and I-16 in an effort to get inland and find shelter.
But the storm eventually made landfall in North Carolina, making it one of the biggest false alarms in memory.
“In retrospect a lot of people in those areas didn’t have to evacuate,” said Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. “But if you have to err, you want to err on the side of caution.”
And for all the headaches caused by Floyd, the evacuation also served as a teaching tool, officials such as Weiss and Anderson say.
Making I-16 a one-way road west -- or contraflowing, as they call it -- in the event of a storm was one such lesson. Another was the power of Georgia Public Radio.
“We found that Georgia Public Radio stations seamlessly covered the evacuation route,” Weiss said. “So we’ve brought Georgia Public Radio into our evacuation scenario to provide real time information going out over the air.”
But Floyd wasn’t the only hurricane to teach emergency preparedness agencies how to do their jobs better. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina led to advance planning and better coordination among state, federal and local agencies.
Now, state officials have GPS coordinates for distribution sites – called points of distribution, or PODS -- where essential supplies can be brought in after a storm – and many of those supplies are already in a warehouse.
There’s even a formula that tells state workers how much ice or water or MREs or tarps will be needed, Anderson said.
“We just have to tell them we’ve activated our POD for Bryan County,” he said. “That’s all I have to tell them.”
And the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was roundly criticized for its response to Katrina, now “pre-deploys” representatives to areas such as Macon or Statesboro in advance of a storm.
Further, it’s easier in the post-Katrina world to get declarations of emergencies at both the state and federal level, officials say. That helps free up government resources and assets ahead of time, not after a storm.
Training is another piece of the puzzle, Anderson said.
To that end, safety workers from a number of agencies recently underwent HURREX 2010, which was designed as a “a full scale statewide exercise to get all the agencies participating," Weiss said.
Meanwhile, plans such as the Georgia Emergency Operation Plan (GEOP) detail what needs to be done and who is responsible for doing it in the event of emergencies ranging from hurricanes or tornados. The GEOP was also used during the explosion at the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth in 2008 (DBCK date) .
The plan is divided into 15 “emergency support functions (ESFs)” ranging from transportation and public works to public affairs. Various local agencies are responsible for the ESFs, with EMA as a “secondary agency on each support function,” Anderson said.
For example, in the event of an evacuation Bryan County Schools will provide buses and volunteer drivers for those who cannot transport themselves. Police and firefighters are responsible for public safety. Communications is the job of 911 and public affairs is the job of Bryan County EMA, which takes overall charge in the event of a hurricane or other emergency.
“One thing we say is all disasters are local,” said Weiss, who has been with GEMA for 15 years. “The local government has the lead the lead in any kind of disaster … the state function is to support them with assets if they need them.”
Apathy among the public, meanwhile, concerns officials – who say personal responsibility also has to play into the picture.
“People have to be prepared and know what to do in the event of an emergency,” Weiss said. “And a big concern is that people get complacent.”
That also concerns Anderson, who in February was named the EMA Director of the Year by the Georgia Emergency Management Association of Georgia.
“Fortunately, in terms of a hurricane nothing has happened in Coastal Georgia for a long time,” he said. “Unfortunately, that means you have people who think it’s never going to happen. I hope when I retire I can say they were right.”
Until then, Anderson, who doubles as Bryan County’s fire chief and heads up emergency medical services, estimates he will spend at least five hours a week on hurricane preparedness – especially just before and during hurricane season, which runs June through November.
There’s also year round planning, and meetings or conference calls with his counterparts around the state. And in May, a month ahead of the beginning of hurricane season, Anderson starts watching the weather.
“Every morning the first thing I do is get an e-mail that tells me ‘this is what’s going on in the tropics,’" he said.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a multipart series on hurricane preparedness in Bryan County. Up next: The worst case scenario.