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Guest column: Recovery from April 5 tornado, part 2
Guest columnist

Editor’s note: The News asked Bryan County Communications Director Matthew Kent to provide readers a “county’s-eye” view of the April 5 tornado that hit North Bryan. This is part 2.

By Matthew Kent, Bryan County.

 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.

The recovery process is a long one and we will be in it for a while. We started to shift into the recovery phase on April 6, 2022, just one day after the storm. Recovery includes not only rebuilding lives and buildings, but includes every other action taken until we are back to normal. Several of those steps can, if not managed well, can be a small disaster by themselves.

The outpouring of generosity from the community has been enormous. In fact, at one point we had enough toothpaste and water for 500 families. Many of these physical donations are good for short term recovery to get those affected the items they need to live, right now. For long-term recovery, we started shifting to monetary donations because over time monetary donations are the most effective. Bryan County Family Connection (BCFC) set up shop at Lanier Primary and initially managed the intake and distribution of donations. They have been fundamental in making sure that in influx of donations did not get out of hand. However, BCFC, with its extremely limited staff, have not stopped since the storm and are striving to meet all of the needs of displaced families. As you can imagine, there is so much more than toiletries to worry about when your home is destroyed.

Lanier Primary has also been the site of other assistance programs for storm victims such as the Georgia Insurance Commissioner’s help with submitting claims, crisis counselling, assistance programs, item recovery, and more. Making a one-stop shop of these programs in a nearby location minimizes some of the stress when families have so much going on. Governor Brian Kemp also used Lanier as a location to sign a state declaration of emergency, which implements laws aimed at preventing price gouging and fraud by contractors and offers some other state resources to help.

Volunteers have arrived by the hundreds to help and they are incredibly important to the recovery effort. Much like during the response phase, if Bryan County had only current staff to rely on the effort would take much longer to accomplish the same goals. It is extremely important that all volunteers be accounted for and assigned to tasks. There are many dangers when dealing with downed trees, power lines, damaged buildings, or even with moving boxes of donations. We created teams of volunteers with different skill levels to help keep everyone safe, prevent further emergencies, and utilize volunteers in the right places. Some volunteers have arrived as part of organizations who specialize in disaster relief, such as Team Rubicon, who have chainsaw crews or the Red Cross, who specialize in shelters. These crews also work with us to make sure they are doing the work that is most needed at that time.

We needed a plan to deal with the over 1000 dump truck loads of vegetative and construction debris caused by the storm. Public Works has been working to remove this massive amount of debris every day and other counties have sent resources to help. If we were officially declared by FEMA as a disaster area, each ton of debris counts toward the required $19 million of uninsured damage. That is why there is a large pile of debris in Hendrix Park awaiting FEMA’s determination. Once the decision is made, then it will be chipped and some will be offered to the public as mulch.

The County has had to find alternate places for the public to do business and play sports, as much of the courthouse complex and Hendrix Park were severely damaged. We are unique in that we have locations in Pembroke and in Richmond Hill. Many services can be completed in the Richmond Hill location or in partnership with schools and businesses, with the exception of State and Superior Courts, which have to be held in the County seat in Pembroke. Finding temporary homes for some departments, such as these courts, is still an on-going process.

All of the above has happened in the past few weeks, but much more needs to happen. Those residents with damage to their homes and cars are working with their insurance companies to rebuild. Those without insurance have several resources offered through the federal government, such as low interest Small Business Administration (SBA) loans. The name is a bit misleading as they offer loans to homeowners.

We are working with our insurance companies and much like homeowners, we have to make the decision on what to rebuild, how to pay for what we rebuild, and whether to take this opportunity to improve on what we had. Bryan County is growing and will need to expand these damaged facilities eventually.

The recovery phase for a major event can last a decade, but for this tornado, we are looking at a couple of years to get back to normal. Then we shift back hopefully the longest portions of emergency management, which are the mitigation and preparedness phases.

We will cover those in part 3 next week.

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