Panel leader set to present system update

WARNER ROBINS — Severe thunderstorms that streaked through Centerville and south Houston County on Mother’s Day evening toppled trees, downed power lines and left several thousand people without electricity for hours.

But no one was injured, and there was no serious damage to buildings or homes reported.

It was another bullet dodged, Centerville Mayor Harold “Bubba” Edwards said.

He’s afraid local residents may not be as fortunate next time, and he hopes a long-awaited all-hazards warning system for the county will soon be operational to give residents more notice of threatening weather.

“It was another wake-up call for us,” Edwards said of the May 10 storm. “The longer it takes to get a system up and running, the more days we’re exposed to being hit unprepared.”

County voters approved a one-year half-mill increase in property taxes last November to pay for a warning system. It is expected to generate about $1.8 million in revenue.

The Houston County Commission has taken the lead in selecting a system, and Commission Chairman Ned Sanders said county officials steadily have been working to find the right system.

“We’ve done a lot of research and work and made a lot of progress,” he said. “We received a preliminary report from the consulting company we hired about a week ago, and we’re reviewing it now.”

Sanders is scheduled to present an update on the matter to the mayors of Centerville, Perry and Warner Robins at the Vision 2020 planning meeting Wednesday morning.

“Hopefully, we’ll soon have something to present to them about what we want to do, and then we can take their input and move forward with the final selection, bidding and installation process,” Sanders said. “Our target still is to have at least part of the system operating by the end of the year or early next year.”

Sanders said the preliminary report recommends a combination system that would use an automated telephone system to call a warning to people in areas where storms are projected to hit, and also a series of sirens in areas of high density, especially where large numbers of people are likely to be outside.

“We want sirens around schools and parks and athletics facilities for sure, and in other urban areas. But in the more rural areas, especially on the southern end of the county, sirens alone won’t be enough. Nor even in towns since so many people work indoors and may not be able to hear them. So we want the phone system also.”

Sanders said the county also is considering a third prong to the system, providing vouchers to help people purchase weather alert radios.

“I’d really like to see the radios included for those in our population who need extra time to prepare for threatening weather,” Edwards said.

In recent months, county officials have visited four counties — Carroll, Henry, Cobb and Cherokee — that have different types of warning systems.

“It was a good way to see what has worked in other areas, to learn from their mistakes, so to speak,” Sanders said. “We’ve gotten some really good information from the trips.”

Representatives of Engineering Associates Inc. of Alpharetta, the consulting firm the commissioners hired in January to shepherd them through the selection and installation process, also made the trips and made recommendations about other systems it’s familiar with.

Sanders said the preliminary report recommends a Code Red phone system that allows cell phone numbers as well as land line phone numbers to be called with warnings. It also allows the National Weather Service to activate phone warnings directly when it detects threatening weather, eliminating a delay of having to first contact emergency personnel in Houston County and having them activate the system.

“It also can be programmed to only alert numbers in small areas where storms are headed, so you don’t disturb everyone all over the county,” said Tommy Stalnaker, the county’s director of operations. “And we can activate the system ourselves for other emergencies, such as if a child is lost in an area or a road is washed out or something like that.”

Sanders said there’s a chance the $1.8 million will not be enough to pay for the phone system and all the sirens recommended by Engineering Associates.

“We really won’t know a final cost until we get into the bidding process,” Sanders said. “We may have to alter the number of sirens to fit our budget, or look for more money from other sources. I don’t want to go back to the taxpayers again, though.”

Whatever decision is made, Edwards wants the county and Houston’s cities to move forward.

“I just hope we don’t bureaucrat it to death and wait until we’ve had someone killed in a storm before getting this done,” Edwards said.

“I think the county has been moving along well with this, but we don’t need to slow down now.”

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.