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Officials review hurricane lessons
Hurricane Matthew 017
This photo, taken the morning of Oct. 8, 2016, on Highway 204 in North Bryan County, shows the type of damage Hurricane Matthew did to the area. - photo by Ted O'Neil

Public safety and other officials met Thursday to discuss the lessons they learned during Hurricane Matthew and how better to prepare for similar situations in the future.

The meeting was hosted by Bryan County Emergency Services and included representatives from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, the cities of Richmond Hill and Pembroke and Fort Stewart.

Homer Bryson, appointed as GEMA director by Gov. Nathan Deal last December, said he is meeting with counties along coastal Georgia to gather feedback.

BCES Chief Freddy Howell said one major concern was the process used to order evacuations before the storm and the re-entry process used after the storm.

“All the counties really need to be on the same page,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be coordinated from the top down.”

On Oct. 5 last year, Bryan County issued a voluntary evacuation order, the same day Gov. Deal issued a similar order for all coastal counties. By Oct. 6, those had changed to mandatory evacuation orders. The storm hit the evening of Oct. 7, and on Oct. 8 a mandatory curfew for Bryan County was issued, ordering residents who stayed to stay off the roads and prohibiting businesses from re-opening.

On Oct. 8, Howell announced that residents could start returning after 7 a.m. on Oct. 9, but warned that people could not be guaranteed access to their homes or whether or not they would have power.

Problems arose, however, because Chatham County remained off limits for several more days.

“We were surrounded by road blocks and there were cars backed up for 15 miles on I-95,” Howell said. “We finally found out that Fort Stewart was open and people could get back to South Bryan on Highway 144, but they had to find a way to get there from the west.”

Skip Youmans of the Bryan County Health Department said the traffic snarls caused issues for his staff because traveling through Chatham County is necessary for getting back and forth between Pembroke and Richmond Hill.

“We were trying to do food inspections so restaurants and grocery stores could reopen and we couldn’t get around,” he said.

Howell indicated that there was some politics involved with the decision to open up Bryan County so soon after the storm.

“Some people were worried about losing tax revenue but they weren’t thinking about the water and sewer and power problems,” he said. “I know we’ll never be able to completely take politics out of things, but a more coordinated effort among the counties would make it easier.”

Bryson said he has heard similar concerns from other counties.

“I’ve heard it both ways,” he said. “Some counties were pushing for a quicker re-entry and some wanted to wait.”

Bryson said one plan to help resolve the issue is to put a member of his staff in each county at their respective emergency operations center during future events.

“That way everyone will be getting the same message at the same time from us,” he noted.

Bryson also praised BCES for its communication with the public before, during and after the hurricane. Howell gave several live updates on the BCES Facebook page that drew more than 140,000 views.

“You should be commended for that,” Bryson said. “Not all of our counties had that kind of effort.”

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