Evacuation decisions, preparations underway in Chatham County - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

Evacuation decisions, preparations underway in Chatham County

(Source: WTOC) (Source: WTOC)

The Chatham Emergency Management Agency updated the public on its preparation plans and enhanced monitoring of Hurricane Irma Wednesday.

Dennis Jones, director of CEMA, said with so many unknowns with Irma, the agency doesn't want to issue orders, like an evacuation, that prove to be unnecessary.

"We're not jumping the gun trying to do a lot of actions that may not be necessary," Jones said. "We're sticking to our timeline. We have a defined timeline. We're communicating that information to the command policy group, understanding what the threat is, and I'm sure that they will make the decision at the appropriate time. This is a very dangerous storm. If it does come here, there's going to be significant impacts to the community. Right now, what we're asking is for everybody to be vigilant in monitoring the storm. Go ahead and take preparedness measures with your family. 

That command policy group is made of mayors and city managers of each municipality with in Chatham County, the county chairman, the county manager, the sheriff, the board of education superintendent and the county's chief judge.

Georgia is a home rule state, so any decision about an evacuation in Chatham County ultimately lies with Commission Chairman Al Scott. Individual mayors can add stronger orders, but can't do anything less than what the chairman orders.

Aside from new evacuation zones, Jones said CEMA has new evacuation terminology. The agency no longer uses "voluntary" or "recommended" evacuation, but "general" instead. 

"So, with a general evacuation order, it's just guidance," Jones said. "It's direction. It's leave. You're allowed to use personal discretion during a general evacuation. We're encouraging you to go. During a mandatory evacuation, it's an executive order. We're asking everybody within the county limits or within that evacuation zone to evacuate."

Jones said as of Wednesday, Irma looks to impact Chatham County on Monday. If an evacuation is needed, he said CEMA will make an evacuation announcement 36 hours ahead for the general public and an additional 24 hours ahead to get those with special needs out. 

"If the track continues on the direction that it's going," he said. "I could be making some recommendations to the command policy group that we start taking some actions around Friday or Saturday."

Jones said as of Wednesday, he isn't recommending people leave, but said it's up to each individual.

"Somebody that wanted to leave now, that's personal discretion," he said. "That's not something that I would recommend right now. It's still too early, but that is something that if you feel you need to do, go ahead and do that. If you feel you need to do that for the safety of yourself and your family, go ahead and do that. We encourage people to go west, so get on I-16. Go west. Go to Macon, Dublin, Atlanta. Just get out of that path, and just make sure you're in a safe and sturdy location whenever you're in your sheltering community." 

With Florida preparing for Irma ahead of Georgia, CEMA said evacuees are already on Georgia roads and staying in Georgia hotels. Jones said it is a similar scenario to Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

With additional people on the roads before any evacuation is issued locally, Jones said there is a concern if CEMA waits too long to announce an evacuation, people will be stuck and won't be able to leave. Jones said both states and local emergency management agencies are working together to coordinate evacuations. 

"We've already started seeing heavy traffic on I-95," he said. "There's already been a lot of reports come in about hotel occupancy being very low throughout the state of Georgia and also South Carolina, so it does play an impact. That's something we consider when we're doing our evacuation clearance times to make sure we have enough time to get our community out. It's happening at the state level through state conference calls, and then also in our area. We're area five as far as an emergency management association goes. In area five, we've been communicating with each other throughout in groups and also individually. So, we're all in lock step up and down the East Coast, and I've also been communicating with Beaufort, S.C. to make sure that what they're doing in South Carolina is aligning with what we're doing."

Improved communication is a lesson learned from Hurricane Matthew, Jones said. He said better communication with the public starts with better communication among emergency operations centers. Every municipality within Chatham County has its own EOC to better prepare residents. He said it's not just the city of Savannah and county have separate command centers, but he said leaders identified sending out separate information in the middle of a disaster as a challenge during Matthew. Moving forward, he said they've created a seat at the decision-making table for each municipality in the county. 

"Since Matthew, we've also created a seat in the EOC for a municipal liaison or a municipal representative, so we want them in our Emergency Operations Center," Jones said.  "We want decision makers from those municipalities to be able to come in, give us situational awareness and also be able to make decisions for their community."

Once sustained winds reach a certain point during an evacuation, Jones said first responders are pulled from the streets for their own safety, and no one will be available for any kind of emergency or medical calls.

In the event of a major hurricane, Jones said CEMA's emergency operations center would likely be moved out of town to Statesboro.

"Our plan indicates with a major category storm, we take emergency responders, critical workforce and those agencies that want to evacuate, we evacuate them to Georgia Southern," he said. "That does include our emergency operations center on Chatham Parkway or this (Bull Street) facility because we don't have a sturdy enough facility to support a major category storm. If this does happen to come here as a Cat 3 or higher, we would most likely move our emergency operations center to Georgia Southern."

If there is an evacuation order, evacuees using the Civic Center and school buses to get out of town are allowed two pieces of luggage, and pets are accepted. 

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