Augusta showed off its hospitality to thousands of Hurricane Matthew evacuees, but officials say lessons can be learned from the rare occurrence.
Thousands fled coastal areas by car to the homes of friends and family and an estimated 22,000 stayed in Augusta hotels. Hundreds of patients were evacuated to Augusta hospitals and nursing homes.
An additional 2,500 were under the direct care of the Richmond County Emergency Management Agency under an agreement, renewed in 2011, to shelter and feed up to 5,000 evacuees from Chatham County in Richmond County school facilities.
Mayor Hardie Davis called the effort a huge success and an example of “One Augusta” – his campaign slogan – at work.
The community donated so much bottled water, T-shirts, diapers, toys and other goods that five tractor-trailer loads of donations not used by shelter residents were hauled to Savannah on Tuesday, according to a department Facebook post.
“This was a concerted effort by multiple agencies – the school board, the city of Augusta, our EMA folks, our law enforcement and in the community, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army. It was really a tremendous showing of care and compassion for folks when they desperately needed safety and refuge,” Davis said.
Some evacuees and volunteers did complain about treatment by a heavy-handed Red Cross volunteer involved in managing the shelter at T.W. Josey High School, saying she mistreated evacuees by refusing them donated items.
Davis said the issues could begin to be addressed in an upcoming initial report.
“I think the outcome of the entire four days will invite some really broad discussion about how does Augusta prepare for emergencies, today and tomorrow,” he said.
It’s one of the few areas where Augusta’s mayor has real authority, as he appoints the county EMA director under state law. Since 2003, the mayor has tapped the
city fire chief for the post, saving the additional expense of having a dedicated director.
“The thing that’s lost in all of this conversation is that the storm didn’t hit Augusta – we took care of people that were victims of the storm, Hurricane Matthew,” he said. “We were on the helping end.”
Augusta hospitals also lent a significant hand during the rare event that sent ambulance buses loaded with patients to their doors.
Dr. Phillip Coule, AU Medical Center’s associate chief medical officer and the EMS liaison for the Augusta Fire Department, said he is especially proud of the hospital’s effort to increase staff and open additional beds before they were requested.
“I am incredibly impressed with how our nursing and physician staff really stepped up and met the need,” Coule said.
AU Medical Center took in 98 patients. University Hospital received 20 hospital patients and 41 skilled nursing, assisted living or hospice patients in addition to 25 emergency department patients who were evacuees, according to Rebecca Sylvester, its director of strategic marketing and promotions.
A dozen University physicians and several physician assistants and nurses volunteered in shelters over the weekend, examining patients, writing prescriptions and sometimes paying for them, because there were no vouchers, Sylvester said.
Augusta Commission members generally praised the community effort.
“It was a team effort – everybody stepped in,” Commissioner Sean Frantom said. But Frantom said he wants the commission to discuss how best to protect the welfare of residents and visitors.
“How many municipalities of our size don’t have a full-time EMA director?” he asked.
Commissioner Marion Williams said the city’s response ran like a “well-oiled machine” but that hiring an EMA director is the mayor’s decision.
Other city officials, including City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson and Fire Chief and EMA Director Chris James, didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.
Fire Department/EMA spokewoman Dee Griffin said officials are attempting to coordinate schedules to have an “after-action plan” meeting this week to go over the response effort.
Jeffrey Putnam, the interim executive director of the American Red Cross of Augusta, said that while the Red Cross directly managed three shelters – at Trinity of the Hill United Methodist Church and May Park and Henry Brigham community centers – EMA is in charge at the school system shelters, including Josey High School.
A Red Cross volunteer roundly criticized by several Josey High alumni for having a bad attitude and withholding donations from evacuees is being handled by “volunteer services,” Putnam said.
“The plan is definitely to reach out to her,” including to “find out her side of the story,” he said.
The woman was a walk-in volunteer who joined the effort the day the shelter opened, Putnam said.
Event-based Red Cross volunteers are registered, given a background check and brief training before being sent to a scene, where they remain “under the purview of a Red Cross manager,” which she was, he said.
Many school shelter volunteers had been called in by school principals, Putnam said.
Augusta housed by far the most evacuees of any shelter site in the state, and there are “many moving parts,” but as always, the Red Cross will do an after-action report.
“Knowing what the full story is will help a lot and bring it all in perspective,” so “we understand our shortfalls and work to fix them as we know them,” Putnam said.