When Johnny Wingers reflects on his 16 years as Macon-Bibb County’s EMA director, the memories don’t stay bottled up for long.
He can easily transition from stories about the Great Flood of 1994 to relief efforts in Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina devastated that region. And he won’t soon forget last year’s Mother’s Day tornadoes that wrecked parts of Middle Georgia.
In reality, Wingers — who retired Friday — has been helping people longer than his official 16 years and two months on the EMA job. He also served as a colonel in the Georgia National Guard and worked in relief efforts that go as far back as the record snowstorm that hit Macon in 1973.
“I have a lot of memories,” Wingers said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not thinking about something that happened (during a disaster).”
Wingers, 70, was hired as EMA director in 1993 after helping the city during a weeklong snowstorm that hit that March.
“Most of the associations I have with him are (centered around) two events,” said Tommy Olmstead, a former Macon mayor and former Bibb County Commission chairman who hired Wingers for the EMA director’s post. “There was the snowstorm in ’93 that created all sorts of problems. Johnny was on duty the whole time, helping to get people home.
“In July 1994, we had the flood, and history has shown what was done during that time. We gave away 23 million gallons of water. Johnny was in charge of all the volunteers. ... If anything was about to happen, Johnny Wingers was down there working. I never could figure out how he could be in every place like he was.”
Of all the disaster help he’s been a part of, Wingers listed Katrina at the top, but the Middle Georgia flood comes a close second.
“I told (FEMA) that we needed 2,200 port-a-potties, and they thought I had lost my mind,” Wingers said with a laugh. “But we got them.”
His voice still chokes with emotion 15 years later when recalling the 60-year-old woman who showed up to volunteer. Wingers was going to put her in a secretarial position, but the woman informed him she couldn’t read or write. But she refused to go home. So Wingers said he had her help open the boxes of bottled water.
“The firemen told me she was handing them out, two at a time,” Wingers said, demonstrating with his arms. “Things like that you never forget.”
Other volunteers included two brothers who had a falling out a few years earlier and hadn’t spoken to each other. Neither knew the other had volunteered to help, and as luck would have it, the two were assigned to the same post and ended up reconciling.
Wingers said he believes that if people showed the same spirit every day that they do during a crisis, the world would be a better place.
“If we could get everybody working together like they do during a disaster, we’d never have any problems,” he said. “You can’t believe how everyone works. A bank president will come in and say, ‘What can I do?’ Doctors, nurses, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’ It’s been very gratifying to me.”
The Mother’s Day storm of 2008 was a perfect example of that, Wingers said. He compared the wind damage he saw near Lake Tobesofkee and other parts of south Bibb County to the wind damage that Katrina caused a few states away.
“I went to Katrina, and except for the flooding, it didn’t look any worse than what we had at Tobesofkee,” he said. “There was damage just like Katrina. There were trees on every house.”
Wingers credited the tornado sirens and weather radios as the reason there wasn’t a single death in Bibb County from the tornado. He said one woman called him after the storm and thanked him. She and her family heard the sirens, but her husband didn’t want to head to the basement. But luckily she insisted. A tree crashed through the house and landed on their bed.
When Wingers started at EMA, there were 26 sirens in the county. Today, there are 56.
“Johnny Wingers has given us 16 years of very dedicated and highly effective public service,” Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said. “He has worked through the middle of the night to ensure the safety of the citizens of Macon and Bibb County and has done an admirable job. ... We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.”
Wingers said he started contemplating retirement in the aftermath of the tornado. He had to have his knee replaced because of an injury he suffered during Katrina, and the surgery was just a few weeks after the tornado.
Wingers was involved in some controversy in June when he loaned an EMA generator to state Rep. David Lucas and City Councilwoman Elaine Lucas after a fire damaged their home. He had also received a reprimand in May for not having a pandemic flu plan in place. But Wingers said the reprimands he received weren’t a factor in his decision.
He noted that there has been a marked increase in tornado warnings over the past several years and is concerned about future storms, as well as the possibility of a pandemic flu.
“It’s become too stressful,” he said.
Reichert said an interim director hasn’t been named, and no timetable has been set to find a permanent replacement. That doesn’t mean Wingers will be inactive the next time a big disaster hits.
“I plan to take some time off, but I want to stay in the public safety field,” he said. “I’m not ready to hang it up. I’ve got to have a mission. When I was out with my knee, my wife (Paula) said, ‘Don’t you need to get back to work?’ I said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ It’s been a real experience. ... If something big goes down, I know I’m qualified to help.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.