As Hurricane Dorian moved slowly toward Florida Monday, Bryan County Emergency Services Director Freddy Howell said the biggest challenge for his office was “getting everybody out of town,” in the aftermath of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s mandatory evacuation order for everyone on Georgia’s coast east of I-95.
“We’re a lot ahead of the game,” Howell said. “What we want to try to do is ride this storm out, and get our community back up and running as fast as possible once the storm has passed. It’s harder to do that if we’re having to do rescue and recovery missions in the middle of everything else. We need everybody to adhere to getting out of here.”
There appears to be time to heed the evacuation order. Howell said he’s still got to talk with local governments, but the county likely won’t start limiting access into South Bryan until the storm approaches, which could be midday Wednesday. That’s subject to change given forecasts.
“We try to limit our people being exposed to dangerous situations. When winds get up to 35-40 mph we try not to put ambulances out on the road for fear of them tipping over,” he said.
In the meantime, there are those who plan on staying, and those who intend to go.
Donna Rucker, a swim coach in Richmond Hill for the Georgia Coastal Aquatics Team, agreed residents should evacuate if they’re in the mandatory evacuation zone. But the swim team held its usual Labor Day practice Monday morning, hours ahead of the evacuation order becoming effective at noon.
“Everyone made practice, I was really surprised, really proud,” said Rucker, a Pooler resident who said she’s not planning on leaving. “It looks like we’re sitting pretty good right now. But we’re encouraging our families in Richmond Hill to listen to emergency services and get out of here if ordered to.”
Rucker said she remembered previous hurricanes, when families who live closer to the marsh were stranded due to flooded roads. “Flooding is what concerns me most in Richmond Hill,” she said, noting she came in on Labor Day to the Richmond Hill Swim Club’s pool “to hunker everything down.”
“Nobody wants to see a pool chair up in a tree down by I-95, so we’re putting everything away,” she said as high school kids took laps in the pool.
It’s become a Labor Day tradition of sorts, a swim practice before an evacuation, coach Ben Umbreit said.
“Welcome to our pre hurricane workout,” he said. “Right before a hurricane hits, we have a practice.”
Both he and swim coach Bill Forrester live in Savannah, in the mandatory evacuation zone. Both said they planned on leaving.
In Umbreit’s case, it’s a vacation in St. Louis with family. The headache, he said, is not being able to get back in.
That’s led many to think hard about whether to leave. Johnny Bittle, who lives in Yellow Bluff, said if he evacuates he may go to Hinesville in Liberty County in order to avoid being unable to reenter the county until the all clear is given. McIntosh County resident Bunny Anderson said she’s not leaving because her husband doesn’t want her goats in his car, but the difficulties getting back home also play a factor.
“We live in America,” she said. “That means we’re allowed to make stupid decisions.”
Howell said he knows everybody won’t adhere to the evacuation order, but added as he drove back from a briefing in Savannah around 12:30 p.m. that I-16 was jammed with vehicles, and so were gas stations at the Highway 204 exit.
“It’s wall to wall with people leaving and that is a good sign. They’re doing what we asked them to do, and it’s good to see that,” he said, adding that Richmond Hill and South Bryan residents should use Highway 144 through Fort Stewart to get west.
“That may get them clear of a lot of the traffic on I-16 and 95,” he said.
Earlier Monday, people were lined up buying propane at Royal Ace Hardware, among them Richmond Hill resident Freida Sikes. As she filled up propane tanks at Royal Ace Hardware Monday morning, Freida said both she and her husband J.M., owners of Richmond Hill Bee company, are staying put in their double wide off Bodaford Road.
“I ain’t going,” Freida said. “They’re going to have to tote me out. I’ve got canned peaches, I’ve got snap beans, I’ve got skinned tomatoes, I’ve got peas in my freezer, I’ve got shrimp, I’ve got fish. I’ve got food. I just worry about other people. I feel blessed we’re not going to get hammered like the islands are right now.”
Forecasters have already compared Hurricane Dorian to Hurricane Matthew, and Howell said that worried him given current tides.
“If this thing is going to be another Matthew, then we’re talking about six to eight feet of storm surge on top of the already high tides we’ve got now,” he said. “So there’s going to be some flooding. We have low lying areas, and we have the potential to have some real problem all the way up to the Ogeechee, Tivoli and Jerico, we have all three of those rivers to be concerned with.”
But there’s an added element. Dorian has been crawling, which means it’s taking longer to head north. That’s giving people more time to leave. On the other hand, it could mean the hurricane, if it hits Bryan, could stay longer.
“Right now Dorian is moving at 1 mph,” Howell said. “So if it keeps that up it’s going to take a while to get here, and then get through here. You try walking across this county at 1 mph. It’s going to take you a while”
Howell said Richmond Hill, Pembroke, Fort Stewart and Bryan County EMS have been working together in advance of the storm, and everybody in his department will be working double shifts “every day until this is over.”
He also said state officials have done something he hasn’t experienced often. They’ve asked questions rather than give directions.
“We have a governor and a GEMA director in Homer Bryson who are listening and talking to us, the coastal county EMA directors,” Howell said. “They’ve called us up and said asked us what our needs are, and want to know what we think. That hasn’t happened often in the past. Usually they just told us what they wanted us to know. We’ve seen it and lived it already, and they’ve allowed us to share some of our experience from past storms.”
Bryan County Schools announced Monday that school will be closed through Friday and extracurricular activities are cancelled as well.
Richmond Hill held a quick called meeting Monday to approve a contract to expedite debris cleanup if Dorian causes destruction in Richmond Hill. They canceled their normal Tuesday night Council meeting.
Kemp’s emergency declaration for Georgia’s 12 coastal counties was done to free up resources and allow for quicker recovery should the storm impact the state. Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced President Trump signed a declaration making federal emergency aid to the state “due to the emergency conditions in the area affected by Hurricane Dorian beginning on Aug. 29 and counting,” according to the press release.
That will help local governments fund any responses to the storm.
“Specifically, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency. Assistance for emergency protective measures (Category B), limited to direct federal assistance under the Public Assistance program, will be provided at 75 percent federal funding for Brantley, Bryan, Camden, Charlton, Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Pierce and Wayne counties.”