Personnel at Fort Stewart are carrying on with nearly normal activities as the installation continues to clean up and recover from last week’s EF-1 tornado.
The cleanup started soon after the twister touched down Feb. 3 on post, taking out power to the entire installation, knocking down trees and branches, and damaging numerous structures and cars.
Heavy equipment and Canoochee Electric Cooperative workers worked overnight to clear debris and restore power.
Eighty-seven rooms at the installation’s hotel were given to soldiers and family members displaced by the tornado. About half had checked out of the hotel by Feb. 4, according to Col. Townley Hedrick, Fort Stewart garrison commander.
He said those who needed new homes on post would start the process this week. Those whose homes would be repaired might have to wait a few weeks. Rooms would be provided for their extended stays.
On Feb. 4 in cold rain, forestry workers with the Department of Public Works were out at Marne Homes cutting up and disposing of fallen trees that had hit power lines and homes.
Hedrick said he believed that 200-300 people were cleaning up after the storm, as well as soldiers who were cleaning up their unit areas.
Diamond Elementary School, which was damaged and had cars overturned in its parking lot, reopened this week.
According to a preliminary report Friday from the National Weather Service, the tornado’s path was 5.7 miles long and 300 yards wide. Its wind speeds were 105-110 mph. There were no injuries reported.
The report rated the storm “EF-0 to high-end EF-1.” It estimates damage to 42 homes, 150 to 200 vehicles and eight unit facilities on or near the Fort Stewart.
“The tornado lasted approximately 10 to 12 minutes before dissipating at Highway 144,” the report said.
At a Feb. 4 news conference, Hedrick said, “I would say just looking at what was damaged in the motor pools, $5 million to $6 million as a rough estimate for structural damage, not including the housing.”
He said Fort Stewart trains for disasters, including search and recovery through buildings and directing traffic.
He said the post has sirens and a “big voice” system for warnings that can be activated by National Weather Service alerts. Last week, however, a Fort Stewart fireman sounded the alarm.
The fireman was outside the 15th Street fire station when he saw the funnel clouds start to form. Hedrick said the fireman called 911 and alerted the operations center to sound the alarm.
Before that, the post had only received severe thunderstorm warnings, Hedrick said.
He said post officials will review reaction to the tornado and warning system.
“You want to say that you get lucky sometimes and, holy cow, were we very fortunate,” he said about having no injuries. “I mean to have a tornado pass right through the middle of post, through two housing areas, through a motor pool, over the barracks. Extremely fortunate to not have anybody seriously injured or killed.
“Boy, that fact is not lost on us that we were very lucky,” Hedrick added.
More sirens needed?
At a Hinesville City Council meeting Feb. 4, Jodee Adams spoke about the lack of warning in Hinesville about the tornado.
She said several people were wondering why no siren sounded in the city, while Fort Stewart’s did. She said Hinesville fire Chief Lamar Cook explained that it was a Liberty County issue, that there are several ways to get alerts out.
“I think we need to address that on how that is getting out,” Adams said. “Not everybody has social media, not everybody has a cellphone. Some of the elderly didn’t even know the storm happened ’til it came on the news.”
“At one time, we did have an alarm and (Emergency Management Agency) is in charge of that,” Cook said. “But it’s out of service at this time. It’s not functional. And the only one, it was located at the fire station and they had received a grant years ago for it. But it hadn’t worked in years.”
Hinesville Mayor Allen Brown asked Cook to look into restoring the old siren and expanding the system.
Hedrick, who was at the meeting, said Fort Stewart would be glad to tie into a city system.
Liberty County EMA Director Mike Hodges said the old siren is behind the fire department.
“As time went by, it’s health and well-being suffered,” he said. “We’ve decided to start looking into something that would do a better job.”
He said the current siren cannot be heard outside two blocks because it is too low. He said estimates to raise it have been expensive. He also said that even if it was raised, there would still be only one siren in the city.
“So, we went out shopping, we found a grant, and we bought something called Alert Liberty,” Hodges said.
Alert Liberty can send weather alerts and other messages in calls, texts and emails to subscribers.
When he heard about concerns raised at the council meeting, Hodges said EMA was not looking into buying new sirens, but would if directed by the county commissioners. He estimated a system like Fort Stewart’s would cost the county tens of thousands of dollars.
“… Savannah did it not so awfully long ago and they did it through multiple grants. And they were in the neighborhood of $48,000 each,” he said.
Hodges said Savannah bought a dozen sirens over a number of years.
Red Cross response
In a news release Friday, the American Red Cross of Southeast and Coastal Georgia said its volunteers had assisted “over 80 individuals with direct client assistance and tools for recovery as a result of the significant damage from the tornado in Fort Stewart.”
Affected families can get Red Cross help at the Army Community Service Emergency Family Assistance Center on Lindquist Road.
It also said donations are being handled by United Military Care and can be dropped off at the United Military Care office at 400 N. Main St. in Hinesville.
Hedrick thanked the surrounding communities and those who had reached out after the tornado hit.
“We have a ton of support and families will be, and soldiers will be well taken care of with whatever it is they need,” Hedrick said. “We’ve had a huge outpouring of support from across the community.”