Extent of Irma's disruption spurs local assessment

Now that the roads are clear and almost everyone has their power back on, White County officials are assessing the impact of Tropical Storm Irma and thinking about what they could have done differently.

The storm hit Monday afternoon, Sept. 11, bringing wind gusts of up to 57 mph. Fallen trees blocked roadways, damaged buildings and left thousands of residents without electricity. White County government was brought to a standstill for five days due to failures of its phone and Internet systems.

“Unfortunately, it was just a ‘perfect storm,’” said county manager Mike Melton.

One unforeseen consequence of Irma was the loss of the fiber-optic loop that many businesses and government agencies relied upon for high-speed Internet service. For county offices, it was double trouble.

“All of our phones are VOIP (voice-over Internet protocol, which channels phone calls through the Internet),” said Melton.

“When the fiber connection went out, we lost all of our phone capability, except at the EOC (emergency operations center), which has some copper phone lines.”

Melton said the county decided to go with VOIP because it’s cheaper, “and we don’t have to pay Windstream for a multitude of phone lines.”

But in retrospect, some officials are questioning that decision.

“We are looking at some sort of redundancy in the future,” Melton said, suggesting that the county may add some old-fashioned landline phones, just in case.

David Murphy, White County’s director of emergency management and public safety, thought his department was ready for almost any contingency.

“The Friday before the storm, we met with HEMC (Habersham Electric Membership Corporation) and Georgia Power officials to discuss preparations at length,” he said.

Still, the ferocity of the storm took everyone by surprise. On the night of Sept. 11, the EOC was struggling to monitor public safety despite having no Internet, only a handful of landline phones, and no cell-phone service (for a while, all three of Verizon’s transmission towers were knocked out).

“Finally, Forsyth County’s EMA provided us with their satellite truck so we could get some communication when we had nothing at all,” Murphy said.

He’s now taking steps to try to prevent such problems in the future.

“We need to address this with the cell (phone) companies,” he said. “And here (at the EOC), we’re looking at maybe having two routes of fiber (cable) in case one gets cut.”


Officials consider back-up plans

Cleveland city administrator Tom O’Bryant, who previously worked for the county and was involved in bringing the North Georgia Network’s fiber-optic line to the area, said the lines could be buried underground, but are usually hung on telephone poles because it’s less expensive.

“The important thing is to build redundancy across the network – to have loops, so that if it’s cut off one way, it can come in another way, through inter-connectivity,” he said. “The more they can connect, the less vulnerable they are.”

O’Bryant said Cleveland’s city government fared better than the county in recovering from the storm.

“We had our phones and Internet back on by late Wednesday (Sept. 13),” he said.

But long before that, city employees were busy taking care of their citizens and customers.

“For us, the initial concern was to address utilities – water and sewer. They need power to operate,” O’Bryant said.

“Cleveland did okay because it has water stored in tanks, and (utility workers) were able to restore power within 24 hours for our main well and wastewater plant. As for the (sewer) lift stations, we had already attached them to generators before the storm.”

He said the public works crew delayed their usual monthly reading of water meters for several days, so they could concentrate on cleaning up debris in the roads.

Also, customers who were nearing the deadline for paying their water bills were told they would not be penalized for the days when city hall was closed.

Similarly, the White County courthouse had to drastically rearrange its schedule due to the county government shutdown. On Sept. 15, Judge Murphy Miller issued a “declaration of judicial emergency,” which could grant lenience to anyone who missed a court date or was unable to file an important document during the period of Sept. 12-14.


Showers for the powerless

For many White County residents, the worst part of the storm’s aftermath was living for up to a week without electricity (and in some cases, water – if their well’s pump wasn’t working).

Last weekend, Murphy turned White County Middle School into a “shower center and feeding station,” offering free showers and hot meals, plus bottled water and ice to take home.

“We had about 400 people come on Saturday and 300 on Sunday,” he said.

Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief provided the mobile shower units and prepared about 1,000 meals, with the assistance of local volunteers (including church members and some school-system employees who’d been off work all week).

Murphy used “robo-calls” on residents’ phones to get the word out about the shower center, and he’s also been posting frequent updates on social media.

But there are still people who don’t know where to turn for services, or even to find out if such help exists. For example, what if your house was damaged in the storm and you can’t pay for repairs? Is there anyone who can assist with that?

Murphy said if people don’t know whom to contact, they may call the EOC at 706-865-9500. In some cases, there may be churches or charities that are involved in helping storm victims.

“We’re referring people to the American Red Cross if they have major structural damage,” said Murphy.

However, the Red Cross can only pay for a short stay at a hotel; they can’t fix your house.


FEMA offers help for counties, not individuals

On Sept. 15, the Federal Emergency Management Agency did issue a disaster declaration for all 159 counties in Georgia. It allows local governments to recoup some of their costs for disaster response and debris removal.

However, for individuals, FEMA is offering assistance for home repairs and temporary housing, but only for Georgians living in hardest-hit Camden, Chatham, and Glynn counties.

FEMA grants and loans are intended for areas that have widespread, catastrophic damage, and Murphy said White County doesn’t qualify, since it escaped the worst of Irma’s wrath.

“So far, we’ve only assessed about 15 structures for major damage,” he said.

However, Murphy is working on setting up a program to help county residents get rid of their storm debris – though it would be only for trees and other vegetation, not building materials.

“We would have to follow the FEMA rules in order to get reimbursed,” he said.


National forest still dealing with damage

Fallen trees, of course, were the main reason people lost their electricity – and also one reason it took so long for some people to get their lights turned back on.

Georgia Power, whose customers are located mostly in cities, faced less of a challenge than the EMCs, which tend to serve more rural areas.

Nicole Dover, spokeswoman for Habersham EMC, offered this illustration:

“Irma left us with more than 250 broken poles as more remote areas were reached over the weekend,” she said on Sept. 18. “An example of the magnitude of damage and time required to make repairs with this event: A crew (of EMC workers) cut fallen trees on Tray Mountain for four hours Sunday just to reach a remote area with broken poles. Then it takes approximately four hours to replace each pole before power can be restored.”

And if utility companies are having trouble getting to individual homes up in the mountains, consider the challenge facing the U.S. Forest Service. At one point last week, most of the recreational areas in the Chattahoochee National Forest were closed because downed trees blocked roads and created a safety hazard.

Gradually, the Forest Service has been able to reopen some of the areas, including the popular Anna Ruby Falls in White County. But before visiting the forest, people are urged to check the Chattahoochee National Forest’s Facebook page for updates on closures.

The same may be true in some Georgia state parks, so if you’re planning to visit a park, it’s best to call ahead and check on conditions.


School officials to determine if missed days will be made up

White County schools were closed all last week due to the severe weather’s arrival and aftermath, but those days may not have to be made up.

As a charter school system, White County is not bound to a specific number of student days, said Dr. Jeff Wilson, school superintendent.

“I will be recommending to the board that we not make up the days,” Wilson told the News. “Because we are on the block schedule at the high school, we would have to take the days from this semester.”

The matter will be discussed at next week’s school board meeting, he added.



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