Emergency responders brace for tornado season in Middle Georgia

Video: Details given on response to tornado hitting Macon

Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency Director Spencer Hawkins describes the coordination required to respond to a tornado.
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Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency Director Spencer Hawkins describes the coordination required to respond to a tornado.

Carol Henderson vividly remembers rushing into the hallway of her one-story Macon home as a tornado ripped through her neighborhood in 2008.

The longtime Markwood Drive homeowner huddled with her dog as she heard a loud roar while strong winds uprooted trees, sending them crashing onto her roof. She was among scores of south Macon residents and businesses impacted by the Mother's Day storm that hit Middle Georgia that year.

"I opened a door and watched as water was pouring through my ceiling," Henderson said last week. "The (tornado) knocked down trees all the way along the block. There were a long line of (downed) trees everywhere."

Fortunately for Henderson, she was not injured. Her biggest hassles were not having electricity for a while and making sure the company that repaired her roof was reputable, as schemers often come out to prowl in the wake of storms.

Tornado season, when tornadoes are more likely to form, runs from March through May. The 2008 tornado, which hit in the early morning hours, is a prime example of why having a weather radio is crucial since it can alert people who may be asleep, said Spencer Hawkins, director of the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency.

On March 30, the Macon-Bibb EMA will hold a shelter-in-place drill. Sirens throughout the county will blare, and residents and businesses will be asked to move to a safe place in their buildings.

"The best way you can prepare is to know where your shelter-in-place location is. That's at your home, office, anywhere you spend time," Hawkins said.

While tornadoes appear to be most prevalent across the Plains, ones such as the tornado that hit downtown Atlanta, also in 2008, are a reminder that no area is immune.

"A lot of people forget tornadoes can happen anywhere," Hawkins said.

When the National Weather Service issues a tornado watch, emergency officials are called into action in the event of a worst-case scenario. In Macon, that typically means officials from various agencies, such as the Bibb County Sheriff's Office, Macon-Bibb County Fire Department and city-county Public Works Department, meet in the bunker offices of the Emergency Operations Center in downtown Macon.

While inside EMA's offices, they monitor reports to gauge the strength of a storm. If there is a tornado warning, where radar indicates a tornado or one has actually touched down, then the outdoor sirens are turned on.

"If we do get impacted by a tornado, the all-clear is given, and we bring in the rest of the response and recovery units to the operations center," Hawkins said. "These will be units like (the Georgia Department of) Public Health (and) American Red Cross to make sure we can recover from the disaster."

The immediate response, he said, is to find the storm's survivors. Once they're safe, other relief efforts would begin. For that process to run as smoothly as possible, emergency response agencies and organizations should have a unified response.

"It's a coordination of all the agencies," Hawkins said. "That's one of the reasons we have meetings so we all know each other to know what we're going to do before and after a disaster."

While local agencies are the first to take charge of an emergency response, in extreme cases, military support can be used when some agencies are overwhelmed, said Col. Mark Weber, with the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base.

"In an emergency crisis, it's about coming into the community and providing the additional resources you need," Weber said during an EMA disaster preparation meeting Wednesday. "We like to think we're here to bring stability to chaos or replace the chaos with stability."

While the Georgia National Guard has 14,000 members, the agency also reaches out to neighboring and outlying states if needed. When Tropical Storm Alberto ravaged parts of Georgia in 1994, the Georgia National Guard was brought in to help, Weber said. One of the guard's roles in the aftermath of the 1994 storm that led to several deaths and massive flooding in Middle Georgia was to bring in more than 3 million gallons of clean water from other states.

"Our job is to protect lives and save property within (the first) 48 hours and stay around to help rebuild the community," Weber said.

To contact writer Stanley Dunlap, call 744-4623.