Editor’s note: We asked Bryan County Communications Coordinator Matthew Kent to tell the story of the county’s response to the April 5 tornado from its perspective. Here’s part 1.
By Matthew Kent
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lays out four phases of emergency management: Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery. Bryan County follows these steps when any disaster happens, on any scale. Much of the work is behind the scenes and each action has the goal of life safety and the protection of property.
Response is the most important phase of an emergency. Before a storm event like the April 5, 2022, Tornado, Bryan County emergency crews received the same alerts that are provided to the public, but with some greater detail from the National Weather Service. With a tornado, it’s difficult to prepare as it can happen anywhere, at any time. This tornado touched down near McFadden Drive in Pembroke and finally relented 11 miles later just East of I-16. The peak winds are estimated to be over 165 miles per hour and the tornado is currently rated an EF 3+. Immediately, 911 was bombarded with calls about injuries and damage. Emergency crews quickly responded in the wake of the winds as damage was reported by other first responders in the area. First responders typically dispatch as soon as the danger has passed.
The first step in managing the event, was to set up an Emergency Operation Center (EOC) to organize and track personnel and equipment. This is important so that no single resource is scheduled to be sent to more than one place and that responders are accounted for. We don’t want an emergency response to turn into another emergency. The initial setup for the EOC was at Fire Station 7 on U.S. 204. All responders checked in and were assigned to a specific area.
We have the Blackhawk, a mobile EOC, that allowed Emergency Manager/Fire Chief Freddy Howell and his team to work close to the event. We were fortunate that most coastal Georgia counties and several cities were able to send resources quickly as well. During an event like this, other fire and medical emergencies do not stop and these units from other areas were needed to start the search and rescue process.
Crews began to search in the path of the storm ensuring that every structure was checked for people and that those found would have their wounds tended to, either on site or at the hospital. Once a house was checked, an X marking was spray-painted on the front signifying time and date, rescue team, hazards, and people found in the house. This minimized confusion and duplication of tasks. The initial search of structures was completed around 11 p.m. and most responders from other organizations were sent back to their home agencies. The initial search was the most intensive part of the response, but the search continued with local crews throughout the night finding no other injuries.
While search and rescue was taking place, those in the EOC documented events, made calls to arrange locations for shelters, worked with Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), Red Cross, and local organizations for resources, and informed the public of next steps. Cellular services and internet services were impacted by the storm and made it difficult to get messaging out. We worked with the local news to spread the messages initially and once we were able to use social media, we put out regular messaging with updates.
Legally counties can enact a state of emergency to open up funding sources and suspend and create certain laws to protect lives and property.
Chairman Carter Infinger declared a state of emergency and set a curfew to protect the property of those in the storm’s path. Law enforcement were stationed at the entrances to the impacted neighborhoods through the night. While we had a GEMA representative on site early in the response, this state of emergency also allows the County to utilize the resources that GEMA had to offer in their State Operations Center. The response phase continued until the morning, when Lanier Primary was opened as a location for donations, volunteers to report, and as a place for first responders to eat and rest. The response phase started to shift to the recovery phase that morning, which at the time of this writing has just begun, and will be covered next week.