This time around, it was towels.
As shelters in Augusta filled up with people from Florida and the coastal areas of Georgia fleeing Hurricane Irma, the American Red Cross of Augusta found itself with a suddenly critical need for towels, so it went and bought 4,000 of them, said executive director Susan Everitt.
“If we do get hit (again), we’ll have towels at the outset,” she said, though she hopes there is no need for them again.
A week after the storm hit Georgia, those involved in dealing with it and the evacuees reflected on what worked better this time around after responding to massive storms and their aftermath two years in a row. Communication and preparedness were the key, they said. Their efforts were aided by the fact that, unlike with Hurricane Matthew last year, they had more notice with Irma, said Chris James, director of the Augusta-Richmond County Emergency Management Agency and chief of the fire department.
“In Matthew, they called us and told us they were coming and six hours later they were rolling in,” he said. This time, they had 24-36 hours notice, and were able to prepare accordingly in setting up shelters and ordering enough cots, which was a problem last year.
“(Evacuees) got here on Friday night but on Wednesday we had already put in a request for 2,000 cots,” James said. “When those citizens came in, the shelters were already set up.”
That extra warning time – people were tracking the storm and preparing a week before it arrived – allowed Georgia Power to tap its mutual assistance network of utilities in other states and even Canada and they responded well, said Meredith Stone, a crisis communications specialist. In addition to their workforce of 2,000 who were pre-positioned to respond, there were another 6,000 who came from 28 different states and Ottawa and Quebec in Canada, she said.
“They were coming from all corners of the country,” Stone said. “It was remarkable. We’re just so thankful for all of the help we received.”
From a high of nearly 1 million customers without power, the utility was down to about 350 customers by Monday morning, a remarkable response given the level of impact, she said.
“We haven’t seen anything like Irma in decades here,” Stone said. “While Matthew just kind of skirted the state, Irma touched every corner of Georgia, every county, impacting almost half of our customers.”
Augusta was also aided by the fact that there were also more people ready to help, James said.
“We had more community partners step up this time,” James said. “Augusta University stepped up great, allowing nursing students and other folks to help work in the shelters. The donation center was set up early so we received plenty of resources that needed to go to the different shelters when requested.”
There were about 250 volunteers who were registered to help when the shelters opened and the evacuees arrived, said Lee Ann Liska, CEO of AU Medical Center.
“I think we were much more prepared for receiving the patients and making sure we had adequate volunteers around the clock to care for them and a much better transfer process between any of the shelters and the medical center,” she said.
University Hospital had the foresight to gather all of the various departments who would be needed around the table at the beginning to talk about resources and communication so everyone would know “who exactly to go to for the information,’ said spokeswoman Rebecca Sylvester.
Red Cross was also fortunate to have already trained 100 volunteers in how to handle a shelter before the storm hit, Everitt said.
“That helped our volunteers know what to expect when they are in a shelter and know how to better respond to being in a shelter,” she said. “That was definitely a positive we will continue to do just so that we’re more prepared.”
There are some things that will probably be improved before the next evacuees arrive, James said. At an aftermath discussion Monday afternoon, they talked about having contracts in place with pharmacy providers to help supply medication evacuees need or left behind rather than relying on a person going around during the event trying to buy all the medicine needed, he said.
While Everitt praised the centralized donation center at the old fire station on Central Avenue for people who wanted to provide items for the shelters, she thought it might be better to have a central phone line, perhaps staffed at Red Cross, for people to call. James said he would like to see Red Cross and Salvation Army, who provide a lot of resources during events like this, help staff the centralized donation center. Also, it would help to have a single person at each shelter designated to call in when resources are needed instead of sometimes getting multiple requests for the same items.
“If multiple orders come in, because we have everyone working out of the same location, we can hopefully reduce some of the duplication,” he said.
With shelters at some of the high schools, some people who wanted to help tried to donate directly to those schools, James said.
“Their allegiance is to that school and that’s where they want to take their donations,” he said. They discussed having Salvation Army pick up those donations and take them back to the centralized center where they can be sent where they are needed, James said.
AUMC is also looking at tweaking volunteer hours for those medical volunteers because they had been structured to match the 12-hour shifts public health nurses typically work in the shelters, Liska said.
“Breaking those shifts up into more manageable chunks I think would be an opportunity for next time, making sure that we’ve got volunteers engaged the entire time evacuees are here,” she said.
James said Augusta performed well and should be confident about the next time it is called upon to help hurricane evacuees.
“What we have now is, after two events, we have people with some historical knowledge who know exactly what to do and know exactly what to expect,” he said. “Prior to Matthew, we had never done anything like this.”
James is just hoping that next opportunity isn’t soon as Hurricane Maria churns across the Caribbean.
“We’re already watching it,” he said. “I don’t think it is a matter of if one will come it’s just when will it come and when will the next time be. We just have to be prepared.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213