Macon-Bibb EMA readies for next bout of severe weather

lfabian@macon.comJanuary 30, 2014 

In the wake of ice and nearly 3 inches of snow, Macon-Bibb County emergency planners have little time to rest.

Severe storms are possible early next week, but Emergency Management Agency Director Don Druitt and his staff watched the television with great interest Thursday afternoon.

In a live news conference, Gov. Nathan Deal took responsibility for Tuesday’s weather calamity that clogged streets and major arteries around Atlanta.

Druitt believes in taking every threat seriously and not waiting to act.

“We just have to plan as if the worst situation takes place,” said Druitt, who has been working in emergency management for nearly two decades after retiring from the U.S. Army.

As the storm was still coming together Monday, Druitt hosted law enforcement, government executives and representatives of the Bibb County school system for a National Weather Service briefing.

After learning details of the pending snow and ice, Bibb schools interim Superintendent Steve Smith decided to close schools Tuesday and Wednesday.

When weather conditions changed early Tuesday, the temperature held above freezing until after school would have dismissed Tuesday, prompting some social media criticism about the decision.

“The information we were getting on Monday was that winter storm conditions would be in the Macon area earlier. You can only make the best decision you can at the time,” said David Gowan, risk manager for Bibb schools. “We’ll always err on the side of caution.”

The winter storm was the first to hit Middle Georgia since EMA upgraded the Emergency Operations Center and Macon and Bibb County governments merged.

The EOC was activated at 8 a.m. Tuesday, nearly 12 hours before precipitation started freezing. Hubs of public safety officers and public works supervisors sat together in front of computer monitors to coordinate efforts.

After Monday’s weather briefing, the mayor, sheriff, school superintendent, Druitt and others gathered privately in the policy room.

Behind those closed doors, plans are made, then announced.

“What we really have is one message and one voice,” Druitt said. “If we were in disagreement, I would express my concerns, we’d decide and come out with one voice.”

During the 36 hours of close monitoring, volunteers took calls from the public, sheriff’s deputies shared radio reports and public works crews coordinated sanding efforts.

Fueled by coffee, pizza, chicken wings, breakfast biscuits and two pies brought in by Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Al Tillman, the team weathered the storm without a single downed tree or power outage.

Across the county, there were 110 traffic accidents without serious injuries between the start of snowfall Tuesday night and Thursday at 11 a.m., the sheriff’s office reported. The majority of them were single-vehicle accidents in which a vehicle slid off the road, or minor incidents on private property. Sixteen traffic accidents with injuries were reported.

“There were no major, large-scale issues. I think the worst thing we had was that someone hit a fire hydrant. The same thing could happen any day of the week,” said Robert McCord, the emergency operations officer. “The public works folks really did a good job getting the salt and gravel out there.”

Severe Weather Preparedness Week begins Sunday, just in time for a potentially severe storm system to develop that could spawn thunderstorms and maybe damaging winds and tornadoes.

“That’s not how you want to start February off,” Druitt said.

“It’s a little early for tornadoes,” McCord agreed.

Staff writer Andres David Lopez contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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