CEMA employees working extended shifts to monitor Major Hurricane Irma

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - Local emergency management agencies are working longer hours and monitoring Major Hurricane Irma around the clock.

Chatham Emergency Management Agency Director Dennis Jones said they're monitoring Irma as frequently and aggressively as they can.

Employees are working 12-hour shifts and will continue those until the threat's reduced.

Jones said they're making normal preparations, like monitoring every weather advisory and running models of their own, but they're also making sure every change implemented since Hurricane Matthew is working effectively.

Jones said a big lesson from Matthew is improving communication. CEMA started sending information to elected officials and community partners through email and text last weekend, and they've also started posting updates to social media.

Jones said now is the time to have hurricane kits made, and evacuation and communication plans in place. He said it's still too early to determine what the biggest threat to our area could be - whether it's wind, rain or flooding - but there are things you and your family can be doing now.

"The storm is more than five days away, and it changes with every advisory and there are four advisories a day," Jones said. "So, we're preparing as if the storm could have impact to us. That's our job - to make sure that the community is ready. What we're doing right now today is we're encouraging everybody to make sure that they have a family preparedness plan, making sure they have a communications plan of their own, and we're communicating information to our partners as well, making sure they understand what the potential threats are from Hurricane Irma, what the potential timeline could be and also just making sure that every new change that we've put into place since Hurricane Matthew is reasonably effective for us."

Evacuation routes are one change made after Matthew. The county has broken one very large evacuation zone into two, giving it a total of three, to get more people out faster.

"Now we've got Zone A, which is from the Truman Parkway to Tybee Island. Zone B is from the Truman to I-95, and then Zone C is from I-95 to the county line," Jones said. "So, with an evacuation order in the future, we should be able to get a little bit more efficiency out of the evacuation process by breaking it up into those individual zones."

As of Monday, Jones said it is too early to know if an evacuation will be needed, but said the county has a clearly defined evacuation clearance time based on conditions of the storm and when the storm's supposed to make landfall.

"We know that it takes X number of hours in order to initiate and activate the evacuation process for Chatham County residents, so we can take the conditions of the storm and subtract those 36 hours or 40 hours in order to give us an idea about when we need to issue that evacuation order," Jones said.

Another lesson learned from Matthew is letting people know that once they leave, they may not be allowed back in right away. Jones said improved communication should reduce re-entry confusion.

"We're taking a lot of effort to ensure that what we're sending out is received and also understood by the end user," Jones said. "That's key for us. We want to make sure everybody understands what the procedures are, what the decision-making timeline is and also make sure that everyone understands what the authorities are within the county. If we can do that, we've already improved on our response effort from Hurricane Matthew. I think with the amount of public education that we do as a community, I think we are probably more prepared than most communities along the coast. We have a very smart and very well-educated public, and they understand what the threats are to our community, and I really believe if this storm were to come here, they'd make very informed decisions."

That means critical workers, such as power, water, and sewer crews, will be allowed in first. Then, it will rollover to the general public.

Another essential part of an evacuation is contraflow. Jones and the Georgia Department of Transportation said they'll be ready, even if some on-ramp arms aren't repaired or replaced from Matthew yet. Jill Nagel with GDOT said the department has barriers to use instead if needed, and also has new arms on westbound lanes to prevent re-entry. Nagel said if the arms or barriers are in place, they are there for a reason, and much of damage to the arms was caused by driver trying to go around them.

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