Macon prepares for hurricane season

lfabian@macon.comMay 6, 2014 

There wasn’t a cloud overhead Tuesday, but sinister storms could be lurking on the horizon in the coming weeks.

Under that clear blue sky, dozens of people set up a disaster shelter at the Macon City Auditorium.

Hurricane season, which begins June 1, could test those skills.

Workers from the American Red Cross, Department of Family and Children Services, the Bibb County Health Department and Macon-Bibb public safety departments are conducting a hurricane preparedness exercise through Thursday.

Under the drill, Macon must be prepared to house 10,000 evacuees from the Georgia coast for up to five days.

In reality, the community could absorb up to 30,000.

Lessons learned in the 1999 logjam of 1 million people fleeing Hurricane Floyd resulted in a reversible lane system on Interstate 16.

All traffic can be streaming west, away from Savannah.

As cots were set up inside the auditorium Tuesday morning, Macon-Bibb County Animal Welfare workers were putting together pet crates.

“Families will tend not to evacuate if they can’t take their animals,” said Don Druitt, director of the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency.

During Hurricane Katrina, more than 250,000 pets were stranded in the storm. Some owners left food and water, thinking they would return in a few days, but many were gone for weeks.

Bibb County secured a grant-funded $30,000 trailer and supplies to temporarily house up to 80 pets, primarily dogs and cats.

“I don’t think anybody really knows about this yet,” said Sonja Adams, of the Macon-Bibb Animal Welfare Department.

Animal evacuees will be cataloged, given identification bands to match their owners’ wrist bands. Photographs will be taken and uploaded to make sure there is no mistaken identity.

“We’re praying there’s really no way for that to go wrong,” said Cson Johnson of Macon-Bibb Animal Welfare.

Cooler than normal ocean waters and the possibility of El Nino conditions developing this summer led forecasters to predict a below-normal hurricane season.

The Weather Channel expects 11 named storms, including five hurricanes -- two reaching Category 3 or stronger.

Colorado State University hurricane experts believe nine named storms will develop, with three hurricanes and only one reaching at least a Category 3.

But, it only takes one.

Only six named storms formed in 1992, but the first one to strike, Hurricane Andrew was Category 5 -- a disaster for south Florida.

In times like that, communication is key to effective response.

Multiple safeguards also are now in place to preserve emergency radio transmissions and enable rescue workers to talk with agencies around the country.

“We had multiple systems put in as fail-safes,” said Robert McCord, operations manager for the Macon-Bibb County EMA.

The Mobile Command Center received a $100,000 technology upgrade recently from a Emergency Management Preparedness Grant.

Dual generators and backup batteries will power the traveling bus.

State-of-the-art communication technology provides the same capabilities as the Emergency Operations Center.

The redundancy stretches across radios, Voice Over Internet Protocol and satellite phones.

If all else fails, ham radio operators can link the mobile unit to those needing assistance or giving guidance in the wake of a storm.

As Macon-Bibb County government leaders join in the drill, experiences from this week’s exercise could enhance planning before future disasters strike.

“You can tweak your plans for things that didn’t work. You can modify them to make it better,” Druitt said. “We all get a chance to share lessons learned and implement better and more useful policies.”

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