Chatham County EMA director reflects on Hurricane Matthew preparation, response

Chatham County EMA director reflects on Hurricane Matthew preparation, response
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)
(Source: WTOC)

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - The Chatham County Emergency Management Agency's director is reflecting on how his department handled the worst storm, Hurricane Matthew, to our area in more than three decades.

Cleanup still continues more than three months later and now we are hearing for the first time from county officials on what they learned.

According to CEMA Director Dennis Jones, the biggest struggle is keeping the plan for a natural disaster like this up to date. They draft these plans and only have to execute them once every 30 years.

Tom Parrish remembers what his yard looked like post-Matthew. Downed trees now just stumps and holes in his yard.

"If it was a dead-on hit, I can't imagine the devastation because we got nailed on the Isle of Hope," Parrish said.

Much of the roadside debris is cleaned up. A few months ago downed trees damaged dozens of homes. Many Isle of Hope residents spent several nights without power.

Even three months later, Parrish is thankful he evacuated.

"When it became mandatory then we started hustling. We got everything together at the house here and headed inland," said Parrish.

One of the first things Jones and I discussed was that evacuation order. Was it timely? Was it enough?

"Was it adequate? Yes, it was adequate. Everybody who wanted to get out was able to get out," said Jones.

Contraflow on Interstate 16 allowed everyone to get out smoothly. The next 48 hours, spent watching the storm as it edged closer to our coastline.

"Communication is probably the most important thing that you need to emphasize when you're in disaster situations," Jones said.

He thinks that communication was good but could have been better. Some things he thought went well, like the initial road clearing right after the storm and adaptability.

"We had a lot of things thrown at us with the storm. They were able to adjust and be able to cope with those situations at a moment's notice," said Jones.

The re-entry process took time and also drew a lot of criticism from frustrated residents. Jones says it could've been a little better with more communication and planning.

"We're trying to institutionalize these a little better so that everybody who has a component to that plan, making sure that they're very well aware of what they're responsibility is," said Jones.

In after-action meetings, communication is the main thing that comes up for improvement. As for the future, they just need everyone up to speed with the plan.

"We've got to get into a process of making sure that the plans are operational," Jones said.

On the personal level, Parrish says he wouldn't change much except maybe when he decides to leave.

"I think the earlier the better, and I think notification is huge," Parrish said.

It's a plan that Jones and others in the county will continue to develop and practice, but hope they don't have to implement anytime soon.

Cleanup should be completed by the end of the month. Residents in Savannah have until January 17 to put their debris near the roadway.

Jones tells me the biggest lesson he learned relates to FEMA and their integration into everything. I'm told paperwork for FEMA could take another nine months to complete.

Following a busy 2016 for the EMA, Chatham County hopes to break ground on a new headquarters building this summer. It would be able to sustain a Category 5 storm.

Two possible locations are the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport and Hunter Army Airfield.
The new building would be a welcome sight as the current CEMA emergency operations center is in a building more than 100 years old.

"We do have an alternate emergency operation center that's on Chatham Parkway, but it only holds a fraction of the people that our main facility holds," said Jones.

Jones, recently named the permanent director for CEMA, says the new headquarters will include an EOC and a 24-hour watch center.

They hope to share the building with dispatch operators.