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Local officials keeping eye on busy hurricane season forecast
A well formed hurricane centers on an eye. - photo by NOAA graphic

By Pat Donahue, Coastal Courier.

Predictions are calling for a busier than usual Atlantic storm season, and Liberty County officials have begun getting organized for a potentially active summer and fall.

Many of the key individuals tasked with emergency support functions met May 8 to go over what might happen in case of a hurricane bearing down on Liberty’s coast. Hurricane season begins June 1 and ends November 30.

Forecasters at Colorado State University are predicting an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season, with 23 named storms, 11 hurricanes and five major hurricanes. The average from 1991-2020 was 14.2 named storms a season, with 7.2 of them becoming hurricanes and 3.2 turning into major hurricanes.

While only Idalia made an impact on the community a year ago, it was the fourth-busiest season for named storms, National Weather Service meteorologist Ron Morales told local officials.

“Prepare for every season like it’s going to be the worst ever,” he said.

Idalia was the lone hurricane to hit the U.S. in 2023, but when the center of the storm came ashore in the “Big Bend” area of Florida, it was a Category 3. There were four confirmed tornadoes from Hurricane Idalia last year.

“The other thing with Idalia was it rapidly intensified,” Morales said. “It went from a tropical storm to a hurricane in three hours.”

Morales also cautioned against following what are called “spaghetti plots” of projected storm paths and that even with the cone graphic of estimated tracks, one-third of the time a storm may not stay within that cone. Also, the cone does not show where a storm’s impacts end, Morales warned.

He also urged preparing a storm stronger than what it is at the time. For instance, if a category 1 hurricane is on the way, prepare for the effects of a category 2.

Also, the time a storm hits can multiply its effect. When Idalia hit Georgia, it was low tide. But when it struck the Charleston, S.C., area, it was high tide.

According to Colorado State University’s forecasters, the current El Nino conditions are likely to become La Nina conditions this summer and fall. That will lead to hurricane-favorable wind shear conditions. Water temperatures in the eastern and central Atlantic are at record warm levels and are expected to remain well above average for the upcoming hurricane season.

“That’s bad for us,” said Trip Duke, deputy director of the Liberty County EMA. “That means there is more energy in the water.”

A category 3 hurricane hitting the Liberty coast will reshape the coastline, Duke added.

CSU’s forecast team anticipates a well above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the U.S. coast for the 2024 hurricane season.

The storm surge from a Category 5 hurricane could put more than 9 feet of water on top of everything in the county as far west as the Dairy Queen in Hinesville, Duke pointed out.

At last week’s briefing, Liberty County EMA Director Bob Dodd went over the county’s evacuation zones. The county’s evacuation zones A and B are split along Highway 17. The county’s evacuation zones do not include Fort Stewart.

Also, representatives from each of the 15 emergency support functions, or ESFs, outlined their roles in case of a hurricane bearing down on the southeast Georgia coast. Fort Stewart officials also took part in the preparation, since 70% of the base’s soldiers and families live off the installation.

Officials with the Liberty County Health Department also asked residents to make sure their inclusion on the hurricane registry is up to date. Residents also should get their information from trusted and reliable sources of information. Liberty EMA officials pointed out last year the tumult caused when an evacuation order was issued for Liberty County – in Florida. That county is in the Big Bend area and is just west of Tallahassee. But no evacuation was issued for Liberty County in Georgia.

Also discussed were making sure residents do not touch downed power lines, even if the power has been knocked out, as those lines still may hold voltage. Also, debris crews and public safety personnel won’t enter private property. Public safety vehicles also will not travel if winds exceed 45 mph.

The county does have agreements with some homeowners’ associations to access private roads in case of an emergency, County Administrator Joey Brown said.

Earlier this year, Liberty County EMA officials sent out a questionnaire about hurricane season, and 62% said they would not leave if the county was expecting impacts from a Category 1 or 2 storm.

If the storm were stronger, Category 3 and up, 48% of the respondents said it was not likely they would evacuate. And 10% said it was not likely they would leave even if a mandatory evacuation order was given. Survey responses also showed 61% of those who answered said they had evacuated for a hurricane.

“A category 3 is devastating,” Duke said. “That’s how important it is for us to come talk to y’all about the importance of evacuation.”

Dodd and Duke said they will hold hurricane preparation briefings with residents across the county later this summer and fall.

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