Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

May 18, 2013

Preparing South Georgia for a disaster

VALDOSTA — A pair of specialized urban rescuers shed some of their protective gear for a moment and exchange relieved smiles because, on the roads across the swamps of residential rubble, a caravan of Lowndes citizens returns to a county that, according to Lowndes officials, was able to repair its wounds in the aftermath of a Category 5 storm due to a dynamic package of disaster plans.

Fortunately, the worst storm on record to affect our area was a Category 3 storm that made landfall between Panama City Beach and Apalachicola in 1896, according to County Clerk Paige Dukes. With Ashley Tye of the Lowndes Emergency Management Agency, Dukes responded to The Times’ queries this week on the county’s preparedness for the “big one.”

The county’s Local Emergency Operations Plan functions as an all-hazards plan and is applicable in any situation, stated Dukes.

“Because we are provided with so much advanced warning with a hurricane, we would begin implementing protective measures within our plan several days ahead of any anticipated impacts,” said Dukes. “The sustained winds would likely be 110 miles per hour with higher gusts, which exceeds the wind rating required in local building codes, so we would order an evacuation for the entire county and coordinate the evacuation process with our local, state and federal agency partners.”

While the county hasn’t been evaluating a new warning system for countywide emergencies, the current systems would provide plenty of warning to residents as officials would disseminate the alerts through all media platforms, according to Dukes and Tye.

Measures include the Emergency Alert System messages over television and radio, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration transmissions over weather radios, local media outlets, local government websites, and of course Code Red would be used to issue emergency information via telephone, text, and e-mail, according to Dukes and Tye.

County officials would partner with state agencies to draw out evacuation routes, pinpoint safe havens and assist the poor and disabled, according to Dukes and Tye.

“Lowndes County EMA would coordinate with GEMA and the National Weather Service to determine which routes would be safest and where evacuees should go,” Dukes said. “The information would be communicated as part of any evacuation order that was issued and GEMA would be working with other counties in the safe areas to coordinate the availability of emergency shelters for those who otherwise have nowhere to go.”

While hurricane-fueled winds would deconstruct manufactured homes and  crumble brick-and-mortar buildings, according to Dukes and Tye, the Lowndes County 911 center would hold fast against winds up to 200 mph.

The county’s recovery plan entails the restoration of critical services like utilities, emergency services, and public works first.

“Once these essential services are restored, the restoration process continues until all necessary services are fully operational and the community is able to function at pre-disaster levels again,” said Dukes. “Police, fire, EMS, and other essential services would continue to operate uninterrupted. Mobile command posts would be utilized. And since most resources would be utilized in the field, the absence of a physical building would not have a significant impact on response operations. Provisions would be made for alternate facilities to provide food, showers, and housing for personnel between shifts.”

Many first responders have received specialized training in Urban Search and Rescue techniques and they would lead teams of personnel to systematically search the affected areas until every building has been searched, according to Dukes and Tye. The county would likely request additional assistance from other teams across the state and possibly even FEMA-sponsored teams; a curfew could be levied to keep crime from stunting the county’s recovery.

Casualties would be expected if a Category 5 storm kept its vigor as it made landfall and headed towards South Georgia. And while a full evacuation would be ideal if the big one hit home, there are measures in place for managing mounds of the deceased.

“We have a mass-fatalities plan that would be implemented and involves coordination among a number of local response agencies as well as the private sector,” said Dukes. “The coroner would be responsible for coordinating the effort, and as with any element of the response and recovery efforts, additional resources are available through GEMA.”

The county has emergency ordinances in place that could be enacted by county and city governments for things such as establishing curfews and other protective measures which, according to Dukes and Tye, would be enforced by local law-enforcement officers and reinforcement supplied through GEMA.

The biggest lesson gleaned from last year’s series of blackouts and storms was the importance of a coordinated effort.

“The events that have typically been the most criticized and characterized as failures seem to all demonstrate a lack of clear order and cooperation among groups at each level of government,” said Dukes. “Often times the plans in place were not followed and confusion resulted. That is the benefit of having a central location such as the Emergency Operations Center where each of the local governments, agencies, and other non-governmental response partners can come together to coordinate efforts in the most efficient manner and ensure that the public is being provided with clear and consistent information on what is happening and what actions they should be taking.”

Citizens should begin preparing for disaster now by developing their own Family Emergency Plan that includes an emergency supply kit that contains enough food and supplies for up to 72 hours, since it could take that long for emergency personnel to access some areas during a major event, according to Dukes and Tye.

The number one thing citizens should do is heed any evacuation orders given by emergency management, according to Dukes and Tye. But whether the atmosphere is settled or churning, the 911 Center will be there for those who need it whenever, according to Dukes and Tye.

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