Back in May, the National Weather Service promoted Hurricane Preparedness Week 2010 -- part of a continual effort to get the public thinking hurricane readiness.
There’s a reason, officials say: Government can’t do everything, nor should it have to.
“Personal responsibility starts in your own home,” said Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. “People have to be prepared for a hurricane and know what they should do in the event of a storm.”
Yet public safety officials in coastal Georgia also spend hundreds of hours on hurricane preparedness.
In Bryan County, that effort is headed by Jim Anderson, the director of the county’s emergency services. He’ll work with his counterparts in other coastal counties and Fort Stewart in the event a storm strikes Georgia’s coast, forcing an evacuation.
It can become a complicated partnership, and a big one. There are about a half million people in coastal Georgia, and an evacuation means working in concert across multiple jurisdictions, not to mention county lines.
“Everybody’s concerned about their piece of the pie -- and rightly so -- and then making their piece fit into the pie,” Anderson said. “That’s why we have these conference calls (with other EMA officials). Chatham County is not going to evacuate without letting us know first. They’re not asking permission, just saying ‘look, at 11 a.m. we’re starting to evacuate,’ so they don’t blind side us.”
Factor in McIntosh and Liberty counties on Bryan’s other borders and “it gets to be a very large conference call sometimes,” he said.
Yet how emergency personnel respond to a hurricane -- or any other disaster -- is scripted in advance in the Georgia Emergency Operations Plan. It covers 15 emergency support functions that range from transportation to public affairs.
“The interesting thing about (the plan) is that those emergency support functions are applicable no matter the emergency,” Weiss said. “Communications, firefighting, law enforcement, public safety, public health -- it’s all in the plan.”
Also involved in the plan are officials from various local governments, from the school board and county commission chairman and sheriff to local mayors, police chiefs and city and county managers and administrators, some of whom make up the Command Policy Group.
Volunteer groups also play a part in any response, whether it’s the Red Cross, Georgia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Salvation Army or a number of other organizations.
In all, hundreds will be involved in the response in Bryan County alone. Statewide, tens of thousands of federal, state, local, volunteer and private groups will deploy in the event of a hurricane.
“As I recall we had close to 14,000 personnel deployed following (Hurricane) Alberto in ‘94," Weiss said. “I have seen as many as 73 agencies involved in a response that was the Tri-State Crematory incident in 2002. So the response is capable.”
But if a hurricane makes landfall here, what happens before, during and after the storm?
Anderson gave a hypothetical worst-case scenario, beginning 120 hours out:
- “A week out, you’re just monitoring,” he said. “From 120 hours to 72 hours, we track the storm more closely and start providing initial alerts to affected individuals.” Among those who will be alerted first are those with special needs -- meaning they can’t evacuate themselves.
Anderson said are 10 people currently on the special needs list now. He expects that number to quadruple in the event an evacuation is ordered.
- As the storm gets closer, Anderson will begin taking part in conference calls with GEMA, the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service and briefing the Command Policy Group. At 72 hours, if the hurricane still appears to be headed this way, officials may call for a voluntary evacuation and begin moving those people with special needs to predesignated shelters.
- At 48 hours before landfall, officials begin planning for a mandatory evacuation. “You’re always planning at one category higher than what is forecast,” Anderson said. “If it’s a Category 2 then you’re planning for a Category 3.”
At some point over the next 12 hours, the emergency operations center will be up and running and the GEOP will be put into effect. And those conferences calls will continue. Officials will decide whether it’s necessary to use all lanes of I-16 for evacuation. In South Bryan, residents will be sent up Hwy. 144 all the way to Hwy. 280 in Reidsville, then west to McRae and on to I-75.
But exactly when an evacuation is ordered seems as much art as science.
“We want to give as much leeway as we can without endangering the public,”Anderson said. “But when we’re at the point where we can’t wait any longer or somebody’s going to be in danger, we’’ll call for an evacuation.”
He estimated it will take 18 hours to evacuate South Bryan. “And you don’t want to start that at night, so you have to back up a few hours to make sure you have plenty of time to get it done before then.”
The reasons for not starting an evacuation at night are common sense: Some people don’t see as well at night; the roads will be crowded, if people run out of gas they won’t be stranded in the dark, etc.
“The idea is at least to start an evacuation in the middle of the day and get everybody out as smoothly as possible,” Anderson said. Unless the storm is a Category 5 with the potential to impact North Bryan, it’s likely that end of the county won’t be ordered to evacuate.
- From 36 to 24 hours, emergency workers will continue to help the public get out -- “maybe even a little further into it, maybe 18 hours,” Anderson said. “But they’ll be given time to take care of their families.”
By then, essential EMA personnel will be working out of the emergency operations center and the county commission chairman will have declared a state of emergency so Anderson can request state help. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Highway Emergency Response Operators (HERO) will be working I-95 and I-16 to help keep traffic flow going. Public safety officials also will be manning traffic control points. Evacuation shelters will have been an announced as well.
- At 12 hours before landfall, it’s time to ride the storm out for those who haven’t left. That number will include Anderson and “very few others.” They will stay at the EOC on Hwy. 204. Entry into South Bryan will be restricted and those who ignored evacuation orders also will be kept from leaving. The Richmond Hill Recreation Association gym on Ballpark Road will be what Anderson called the “shelter of last resort for those who stayed home and, just prior to impact thought it wasn’t a good idea. We have to provide them a place to stay.”
- Once the storm hits, damage depends on a number of factors, including where it makes landfall to the strength of the storm.
Once it passes, emergency workers will return in a process known as "re-entry." But how and when is determined by the state. Initially, only Hwy. 144 will be used, because both Hwy. 17 and I-95 cross rivers and Army Corps of Engineers representatives will have to make sure bridges weren’t damaged by the storm surge.
“There’s no time frame, but re-entry usually starts as soon as winds subside to less thant 45 mph sustained,” Anderson said. “Once this blows over, the re-entry process and the rescue process starts.”
- In a worst case scenario, trees will be down, power lines will be down and most structures will be damaged. On a positive note, Georgia’s lack of levees means storm surges should subside rapidly, which should speed up the recovery process.
“Georgia Forestry will come in to clear roads, the utility companies will come and start securing power lines,” Anderson said. “Teams will start rescuing the ones who stayed behind and get them out of the area, going house to house and street to street,” While that’s going on, state and federal officials will move prestaged supplies into the county, whether by truck or helicopter.”
- Once officials decide it’s safe, residents will be allowed to return. “Until it’s actually announced, re-entry points will be checked and it will be restricted,” Anderson said. “People need to realize there could be weeks before they will able to come back home.”
This is the third in a multi-part series on hurricane preparedness in Bryan County. Up next: Could this be the year Georgia gets hit by a major storm?