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EMA folks talk storms at forum

With Florence churning northward in the background and memories of hurricanes Matthew and Florence still fresh, state and area emergency management officials met Monday in Richmond Hill at the invitation of U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler.

The reason for the meeting, which was held at the Wetlands Center at J.F. Gregory Park?

“None of us in this room are smarter than all of us in this room,” Carter said, before opening the forum to officials to discuss issues they had in preparing and responding to storms such as Florence.

One challenge is dealing with public perception, several officials said, and is at least partly due to the way the different states mobilize to respond to a storm.

Chatham County Emergency Management Agency Director Dennis Jones said Florida and South Carolina begin to put their emergency responses in motion 24-48 hours earlier than Georgia, and “that gives the public the perception we’re behind the eight ball, even when we’re in sync with our own timelines.”

Georgia Emergency Management Agency Director of Field Operations Chuck Ray said that’s partly due to both states long history with damaging storms, something Georgia avoided for decades until recent years due to its relatively short coastline and geography, but Jones noted EMA workers “catch a lot of flack for it.”

In addition, Georgia’s position between the two states can make it difficult for evacuees to find shelter in the state because they’re filled up by people from Florida and South Carolina, officials said.

Emergency planners also noted a governor’s state of emergency declaration in advance of a storm can also lead to confusion. Though initially meant to ease government restrictions so that necessary supplies and equipment can get from state to state and are also necessary for federal help, such declarations can send residents into a panic, officials said, and it can also make residents more skeptical if the state isn’t hit, officials said.

There were other issues during the past two storms, officials said.

One problem emergency responders had to deal with was a lack of consistency from GEMA representatives.

Richmond Hill Fire Chief Ralph Catlett said during Irma it seemed the city had to deal with five different representatives from GEMA, “and each one had a different way of doing things,” he said. “You’d start doing things one way, and then that person would come along and someone else would come in and want us to do it a different way.”

Others said they’re still waiting for millions of dollars in reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the cost of cleaning up after previous storms.

Those the meeting also kicked around ideas such as requiring all community water systems to have generators at lift and pump stations to provide backup power.

There was talk of whether current green re-entry passes should still be valid, despite GEMA’s new system.

Those passes will be phased out entirely in 2020. Loosening requirements for who is eligible for the passes, which are limited early on to those essential to restoring services after a storm, was also recommended so that those who can provide such necessities as ice or motel rooms can get back to their businesses.

In that regard, a more regional approach to closing communities might also be helpful, some noted.

Coastal Electric’s Mark Bolton told officials he and his boss were trying to get a transformer from Midway in Liberty County to nearby McIntosh County and were refused entry to McIntosh on Highway 17.

Bolton said they had to drive to I-95 and go south, then get off the interstate and come back into McIntosh from that direction.

“We got there, but it took a while,” Bolton said.

Liberty Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Larry Logan suggested that the state begin prepositioning supplies and equipment in areas where it can to help speed up response times.

Before it was over, Bryan County Emergency Services Director Freddy Howell, one of a number of local officials at the meeting, said that forums such as the one held Monday are useful for everyone involved.

He also praised his fellow EMA directors.

“I’m actually proud to be a part of y’all,” he told them. “And I thank you for what you do.”

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