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Officials say county was well prepared for storm

Posted: September 20, 2017 - 12:54am  |  Updated: September 20, 2017 - 12:57am
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After 24 hours of driving wind and rain from Tropical Storm Irma beared down on Columbia County last week, county leaders said they were well prepared and began cleanup efforts last week.

During a debriefing meeting Sept. 13, officials reported county crews responded to more than 200 work orders in relation to the storm, and successfully implemented the use of a new software to streamline reporting and responding to incident areas.

After the worst of the storm passed through the area Sept. 11, Columbia County officials said crews were out and about the next day, utilizing new ESRI software to complete storm damage assessments before debris cleanup got underway.

According to EMA director Andy Leanza, the ESRI software utilizes the county's Geo Information Systems capabilities. Crews in the field who respond to the incident can take a photo of the issue and designate a code for the problem area. It is then pinpointed on a large map of the county. The information is accessible by department managers and other leaders officials who were stationed at the Emergency Operations Center during the storm.

The maps are then projected on large screens at the EOC with members of the GIS department, administrators and other key decision makers for departments responding to calls coming to 311.

"As far as the EOC operating, I think it went really well," said deputy county administrator Matt Schlachter. "We had good relay information, we had 311 sitting right beside GIS, who was sitting right beside roads and bridges, and the water utility department."

"It worked very efficient with all the different responding crews sitting there beside each other, stormwater, engineering, road construciton, water utility, four of those decision-makers sitting right there together."

And officials said the documentation piece of each incident crews responded to, including the photos, were crucial to being able to apply for federal aid.

The hotspots compiled during the storm were pinpointed on a map of the county, and showed several major problem areas between Furys Ferry and Old Evans Road in addition to multiple areas in Appling.

The plotted points can be filtered to show a variety of incidents, including road closures, available fuel stations in the areas, emergency shelters, road detours and even hotel vacancies, to assist responders, among others.

Leanza also praised the cooperation of Community Emergency Response Team members that responded to a Red Cross Shelter class Friday before the storm hit. Leanza said with all the volunteers, software and first responders acting in concert, he was pleased with how well the county responded.

"I have almost teared up a couple times because I have been doing this so long and to see the CERT members, for example, come together and handle the sheltering piece so effectively. There was an overwhelming number of volunteers and good volunteers too." Leanza said. "Then GIS is the cherry on the cake, of what's your dream of anything you could track any way you want to see it and give you all the data collection, every piece that you need. In the end, the county staff was ready."

In Grovetown, crews worked last week to continue cleanup efforts.

On the city's Facebook page was information regarding cleanup assistance from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

The post states residents in need of support for cleaning up trees, large debris or other disaster oriented impacts can contact the GEMA hotline at 1 (800) 451-1954.

"A representative will ask for your name, address, primary phone number and what you need help with. From there, your information will be placed in their database for local organizations to receive. Once a local organization (Red Cross Chapter, local churches, etc.) receives your information, you will be contacted. It is important to remember that it could take days for a local organization to respond," the city's Facebook page says.

The hotline will only be available until Sept. 30.

Leanza said the county was well ahead of its Sept. 15 deadline to report incident and damage numbers to Georgia EMA, saying they have been documenting every aspect of the storm as they have gone along.

Leanza also addressed the occupancy of the shelters established at Patriots Park and Liberty Park Community Center.

More than 100 evacuees from many different places, all the way from Naples, Fla., to coastal Georgia, were housed in the county shelters. Leanza said some used the shelters as a "warming station" to stop and grab a bite to eat on their way home.

The Patriots Park shelter got nearly 100 evacuees overnight after 7 p.m. Monday, when the worst of the storm was expected to hit the area. Three people reportedly arrived at Liberty Park Monday evening, but were directed to Patriots Park.

The Liberty Park shelter was closed Sept. 11, after being open for less than eight hours, and the Patriots Park shelter was closed at 4 p.m. Sept. 13. Officials said the facility would resume regular operations the next day.

Thousands remained without power days after the storm passed and many were restored by Sunday.

And while frustrating for county crews, Schlachter said the county's inability to deal with trees with power lines in them was a major safety issue.

"I know that's frustrating to the citizens. They see a tree down, they see our crews walk up to it and look at it, and then our crews will drive away. That's a life safety issue for everybody, the residents, our employees, the contractor themselves," Schlachter said. "It's basically a standard operating procedure. We can't open a road because there's a line tangled in it. It might be a dead line, but we don't know that. Until Georgia Power or Jeffereson Electric comes out there and says this line is no longer energized, we are not going to be touching that tree."

Other areas of concern after the storm, regarding power, came from Columbia County fire chief Jeremy Wallen, who cautioned residents to be aware when getting power turned back on.

"When they turn their power back on, if you've left appliances or tools or anything going when the power went off, when it comes back on, those tools will kick back in," Wallen said. "So you really want to either make sure all of your electric power items, appliances, stoves, ovens, and now a-days even grills are electric, make sure those are off, so that you don't go to work and power comes back on."

Wallen suggested utilizing the Georgia Power app that alerts homeowners when power is about to be restored to a home.

"The app will let you know so you can go home and turn your main back on, so that you can be there when the power comes up," Wallen said, adding the department had responded to a minor fire last week in which power was returned to a home where the stove was left on when the power initially went out.

Leanza touted the efforts of administrators who aided the setup of the Patriots Park shelter and helped man the EOC center.

"We are all part of the same team, we are not just going to sit back and just kick our feet up while everybody else is working. We are here," Schlachter said of stepping in to help where needed.

"Overall, I think we came out a lot better than we could have. We are very thankful that the storm didn't hit us a bad as it could have. I think we responded well."

 

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