As Hurricane Irma continued to make a westerly turn Sunday, Columbia County emergency management officials said they were prepared, just in case, coordinating with Red Cross to provide emergency shelters.
“We are still preparing with full force,” EMA director Andy Leanza said Sunday. “Preparedness is an everyday thing here in Columbia County. Whether it’s needed or not, we are already going to have everybody in place, a call roster, if we have a tornado event, of course that could still be a possibility, we are ready. We are prepared for even worse.”
Leanza and other officials were at the Patriot’s Park gymnasium, where a Red Cross shelter has been established for evacuees.
The shelter was opened to roughly 21 evacuees about 6 p.m. Saturday, according to shelter manager and Red Cross volunteer Eli Martin.
The gymnasium has more than 140 cots that can be set up as needed. It has play rooms for different age groups, a dining area and separate rooms set up in the racquetball court areas for any families with children or members with special needs.
For Martin, this was a first being a shelter manager, however he said he served shelters in Richmond County that were established when Hurricane Matthew impacted the region last year.
Martin said that evacuees are informed of the shelter via the Red Cross website as well as public service announcements and other news media.
On Sunday morning, Martin said that 10 Red Cross volunteers were on hand, some from the county’s Community Emergency Response Team.
Martin said some volunteers were brought on during a Red Cross shelter training that drew more than 150 volunteers to the Columbia County Emergency Operations Center on Friday night.
“(Saturday) morning, we must have had eight people that attended that class Friday night that came out here to volunteer,” Martin said. “It happens in spurts. Some people can only stay a couple of hours and can’t stay a full shift, so if they come in we are going to take them and try to put them to work.”
Martin was sending volunteers home early Sunday as the number of volunteers outnumbered the evacuees at the shelter.
Overall, the experience had been a positive one.
“You just can’t do this and not feel good about our country and our people,” Martin said. “I don’t care about what the politicians say or the media says, it’s the people. When the chips are down, they’re there. That’s what America is about.”
Martin said Patriot’s Park will be open to anyone who needs shelter during the storm. The shelter is staffed with EMT and nurse volunteers and a law enforcement officer present 24 hours a day.
Also at Patriot’s Park was Grovetown City Adminsitrator John Waller, who said he was on a “reconnaissance” before preparing to set up the Liberty Park Community Center as a Red Cross shelter, which will remain on standby until needed.
“Having walked through and seen how they are set up here at Patriot’s Park, we are going to use a similar template over where we are,” Waller said. “Should the time come that they activate it, at that point, we already have people identified who are going to come in and work shifts and we talked about custodial staff and how the Red Cross wants things set up. Hopefully we won’t have to active ours, but if we do we will be ready.”
Columbia County’s new EMA deputy director Shawn Granato said the county is preparing Liberty Park Community Center, but it has not been activated as of Sunday night.
“On the back end of this storm we are going to have possible tornadoes and flooding and heavy rain so we want to get places set up,” Granato said, “We have three or four (shelters) that are on the wait list to prepare and one we are physically preparing today, but we are not opening it yet.”
No matter the outcome of the impact of the storm, Granato said that the county’s preparedness in partnership with the Red Cross would not be in vain.
“So what this is doing is it’s testing our logistics, our manning, our personnel, our volunteers and everybody else and everybody has pulled together and done a great job,” Granato said, adding that they also learned a few lessons along the way. “There’s lessons learned. There always are.”