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Storm response could have been better, say some Augusta officials

Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 8:51 PM
Last updated Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 1:54 AM
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 Without power last Sunday, the Rev. Mark Joyner thought regular worship service at Piney Grove Baptist Church in south Augusta would consist of only three songs, a sermon and some parishioners sharing Scriptures.

After 90 minutes, he realized he was wrong.

“The building was a little bit on the chilly side, but nobody wanted to leave,” said Joyner, the pastor of the 125-member congregation. “The presence of the Lord was so strong that everyone wanted to stay and pray.”

The presence of those responsible for getting residents’ electricity back on or finding them safe haven, however, was not quite as strong as some would have liked after the winter storm hit the Augusta area nearly two weeks ago.

The Augusta Chronicle found that although emergency officials moved aggressively before the storm to urge residents to stay inside, particularly those who are disabled, the city and local power companies were at times unprepared to help residents deal with the icy weather’s lingering aftermath.

Kelli Walker, the director of Augusta’s 311 customer service hotline, estimates that between 1,600 and 1,700 calls could not be answered by her staff for two days before the department was able to reopen Feb. 14.

The city’s only emergency shelter, which was originally stationed in a community center next to the county jail, had no backup generator and needed to be moved to the school district’s bus depot on Mike Padgett Highway when it lost power.

Though elected leaders said city workers, emergency personnel and utility contractors deserve praise for their tireless efforts to help those in need, 311, 911 and emergency management department heads said it is also clear that local government could have, and should have, done better.

“We have definitely realized that we need to be more accessible and able to assist customers in a more timely fashion in the event of a natural disaster or a similar emergency,” Walker said.

Since her office is located in the city’s Municipal Building, Walker’s department shuts down when the facility closes in the event of a disaster. As a result, 311 operators could not take calls Wednesday when the storm hit and had two people answering calls from home the next day on cell phones.

Without power and Internet access, Walker said her staff had no way to log or expedite hundreds of work orders in the system.

“It’s hard when you are in a home setting and without power,” Walker said of reading emergency numbers by candle and flashlight to assist others. “You’re in the same situation of the people you’re trying to help. “

On cell phones, 311 operators can only take two incoming calls and receive 40 voicemails at a time. Plus, Walker said they lose the ability to put customers on hold and broadcast important public service announcements while they wait for assistance.

“So many calls came into my cell phone. It rang all night,” she said. “My voicemail filled up in five minutes.”

City officials estimated that 85 percent of the storm-related calls received at 311 and 911 centers were from people alerting authorities to downed trees, or asking for shelter information or how to report a power outage. Some were from residents on oxygen supply panicked they would not get the critical power supply they needed to keep breathing.

Few power companies in the region were left with a more daunting test after the storm than Planters Electric Membership Corp., a small energy cooperative that serves rural areas of Richmond, Burke, Jenkins, and Screven counties.

Planters Electric customers in McBean, a small community in south Augusta, remained without power until late Tuesday, almost a full week after the storm began.

The outage left many senior citizens without heat and hot water. A 77-year-old Piney Grove parishioner reported that the lack of power prevented her from operating her nebulizer, which if not for the help of her daughter, who had power and lived nearby, she might have become incapacitated after six hours.

Unlike Georgia Power, which applies medical notes to the accounts of special needs customers to monitor outages and provide updates, Planters Electric has no such service. For customers who require medical care, it urges them to contact emergency services or their medical provider, said spokesman Craig Heighton.

District 8 Augusta Commission member Wayne Guilfoyle represents almost all of south Richmond County and said he received numerous phone calls from McBean residents affected by the extended outage and asking for help.

After seeing two trucks on Piney Grove Road for two days, the commissioner said he called the energy provider Monday afternoon.

Within the hour, six more trucks appeared and power was restored that evening.

“We started planning as soon as we knew we were going to have a storm, but we were hit really hard,” Heighton said. “It devastated the system. In a matter of a couple of days, most of it was wiped.”

Heighton said Planters Electric plans to assess its storm response and look at what it might do differently in the future, but right now it is still trying to catch its breath.

The company brought in 250 linemen in advance to help its staff of 31 technicians. He said it was not until late Thursday when most of its 13,500 customers affected by the ice storm were expected to have power back.

By comparison, Georgia Power, which faced many of the same issues, had 8,000 linemen – 3,000 from out of state – on standby ahead of the storm in metro Atlanta, Augusta, Athens and Macon, spokesman Brian Green said.

“We know it is a frustrating process, but it gets incrementally more difficult as the numbers draw down,” Heighton said of outages. “At first, you can repair a main line and turn on hundreds of meters, but as you dwindle down and get into the more rural areas, you could have three trees across one line and three crews on the job and only get a handful of people restored.”

Guilfoyle said a tour of his district last weekend opened his eyes to the extreme damage ice can cause, but he would not go as far to identify areas where the city could improve its response efforts.

Instead, Guilfoyle, who loaned his generator and opened his home to six residents, said more preparation needs to happen in county households with citizens making sure they have plenty of supplies, such as firewood and generator fuel.

“The response time was amazing,” he said. “It’s on us as individuals to be prepared.”

Joyner said residents in south Richmond County have come to expect to be the last to have power restored after natural disasters and learned to rally around one another to survive.

Augusta Fire Chief Chris James, whose responsibilities include emergency management, said he was impressed residents stayed inside as instructed, but that there were important lessons learned by his staff.

One of the corrective measures his department plans is buying additional generators and pre-wiring emergency facilities to work on the electrical converters in an outage.

James said the city had to relocate three residents who initially sought refuge at an emergency shelter at May Park Community Center after the Fourth Street facility lost power and had no backup electrical supply.

Those affected were moved to a Richmond County school bus depot on Mike Padgett Highway and joined by 75 other residents the next night. James said the shelter never reached full capacity.

“Often it is hard to determine what location you will be using as a shelter because you do not know where the disaster will hit,” the chief said.

In all, Richmond County has 57 designated locations that can serve as a shelter and of that number, 31 have backup generators or the capability to hook up an emergency power supply, according to American Red Cross records.

Walker said it would be great if the 311 department had the resources to remain open and that she has been interested in working with Augusta’s 911 Center to designate a small area in its office, which is considered essential to city operations and always open, for her operators to address non-emergency calls.

The idea has never formally been presented to the commission, but 911 director Dominick Nutter said an area could definitely be accommodated in the center for 311 operators and that the partnership could help facilitate emergencies.

Though his staff answered all calls made to the 911 center, Nutter said not all were answered as quickly as policy requires. Normally, operators have to answer a 911 call in 10 seconds, or three rings; however, during the storm, the center had to exercise its emergency rule, and grant operators one to two more minutes to answer some of the 11,000 calls it received during the brunt of the storm.

Nutter said 311’s help could enable his staff to better fuflill its duty of notifying power companies when a tree falls across a power line, or vice versa. He said notifications are now made by phone, which can be time consuming.

“Ideally in a perfect world, we would be electronically connected for information sharing; however, right now we are not part of the same department,” Nutter said of 311. “That’s something we would need to work on improving.”

Comments (28) Add comment
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Just My Opinion
9304
Points
Just My Opinion 02/21/14 - 10:15 pm
17
0
We ALL could've done better,

We ALL could've done better, and we will next time. That's what we're supposed to do...learn and adapt. Remember, we're not some northern city that experiences this often. This is Augusta, Georgia, where we are getting better at preparing for these winter messes. I am not about to harshly criticize their efforts. As for me, I think a gas chainsaw and a generator will help my family cope next time.

JRC2024
21868
Points
JRC2024 02/21/14 - 11:10 pm
17
0
In my opinion everyone was

In my opinion everyone was doing their best. The Power Company employees from everywhere worked very hard along with the cable companies and the clean up people. My hat is off to all that made it happen. I saw no one even lose their temper where I live and work.

Thanks to all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

WMartin
132
Points
WMartin 02/21/14 - 11:11 pm
11
0
Response by all was very good

Hats off to all of our local county governments, power companies, and emergency services. Their response was more than just adequate for this once in a lifetime ice storm catastrophe. Hats off also to the residents of Richmond and Columbia counties for helping each other out.

Little Lamb
64341
Points
Little Lamb 02/21/14 - 11:37 pm
4
0
Empty

Wesley Brown is a “glass half empty” kind of a guy.

deestafford
77862
Points
deestafford 02/22/14 - 12:32 am
6
1
Overall, excellent job. Recommendation...

Overall excellent job considering the circumstances. Recommendation is to have a meeting of all key players and go thru an key player exercise in September of each year and then in November have an exercise with the key players and all two levels down from the key players using all lessons learned in the actual emergency and the exercises. Key players would be the principle leaders of each organization/agency.

AutumnLeaves
12480
Points
AutumnLeaves 02/22/14 - 12:56 am
3
7
I wonder when we will get

I wonder when we will get emergency sirens with a manual switch for when the power goes out. Oh wait. We don't have emergency sirens. Oh well, we have reverse 911. Oh wait, none of the phones are working, landlines or cell phones, even if you have them. Can't happen? It did, and that was multiple carriers, too, in one household. Good thing a tornado didn't come through on top of the ice storm and earthquake. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned tornado....

geecheeriverman
47271
Points
geecheeriverman 02/22/14 - 06:33 am
11
0
Live and Learn

This was a situation that happens rarely around our area. I will never throw stones at any one, or any department for what might have been a better response. I was proud of how people worked together thru all this. Hats off to all emergency personnel, power crews, law enforcement, and public officials for all the hard work and long hours they put in. I think that we recovered well under the situation. Still a lot of hard work is needed with the cleanup. Thanks be to GOD that very few were injured.

nocnoc
112940
Points
nocnoc 02/22/14 - 07:34 am
8
0
WHINE WHINE WHINE

Everything we do each day could have been done little better.
So there is no need to toss a wet towel on the great job around that was done by many many dept's and average Joe's and Jane's people.

But maybe the Commission does need to hold an After Action meeting and bring in the County Dept's heads? To see if and where EMS and Basic service disruptions could be reduced with a little tweaking.

We just need to keep in mind.
The CSRA only gets a BAD Multi-day sticking ICE or Snow storm about every 7-10 years.

seenitB4
173889
Points
seenitB4 02/22/14 - 08:54 am
10
1
If you only knew

Some of the power folks went through hell & high water to get the power back on---I have the pics to prove that....water up to their chest. Soo, next time try to prepare for danger. The gov can't hand hold us through life....wait a minute---that is exactly what some people want.

akmoose
157
Points
akmoose 02/22/14 - 09:10 am
7
2
Planters

We notified Planters of broken poles and wires down across people's yards several times a day for a week. No one even came out to LOOK at the damage or see if those families were able to get in and out of their homes. Then we heard, and it was verified by people who work for GA Power, that they were offered help from Ga Power after they'd had most of their customers restored, and turned it down after griping about how big Burke County is and that this job was going to be a 2-day job...funny that as soon as my husband told them on Monday that the media was going to be crawling up their butt, and I was on Fox 54 that night, they were out here the very next day and that "2-day job" took less than 8 hours. AND we STILL have those broken poles and downed lines...the lines over the road coming in have dropped so much the school bus couldn't even come through yesterday morning. Good thing the storms yesterday weren't as bad as anticipated or we'd be out again and someone could've had those wires come down on their vehicle.

soapy_725
50287
Points
soapy_725 02/22/14 - 10:14 am
0
0
A 311 backup plan would be great. A generator? A satellite?
Unpublished

A 311 backup plan would be great. A generator? A satellite?

soapy_725
50287
Points
soapy_725 02/22/14 - 10:16 am
0
0
They have a PLAN. Taxpayers paid for it. Its Augusta Georgia.
Unpublished

They have a PLAN. Taxpayers paid for it. Its Augusta Georgia.

soapy_725
50287
Points
soapy_725 02/22/14 - 10:17 am
0
0
Private businesses know how to get work done. Guvmit NOT.
Unpublished

Private businesses know how to get work done. Guvmit NOT.

soapy_725
50287
Points
soapy_725 02/22/14 - 10:17 am
0
0
Guvmit likes to talk about work. Not do work.
Unpublished

Guvmit likes to talk about work. Not do work.

burninater
13595
Points
burninater 02/22/14 - 02:07 pm
7
1
"I will give Jefferson Energy

"I will give Jefferson Energy credit for managing to get my bill posted on line right on time during the middle of the disaster."
-----
I hear the weather in India is quite pleasant this time of year.

seenitB4
173889
Points
seenitB4 02/22/14 - 03:42 pm
6
0
dichotomy

If they refused help from other companies that would upset me too..I did hear that happened.

7 days = a long time...esp with small children in the house..

allhans
25545
Points
allhans 02/22/14 - 05:04 pm
2
1
Today my daughter who lives

Today my daughter who lives on Lake Forest Dr continues to have no television, internet or telephone (other than their iphones) ....Comcast has promised next week. We will see.

AutumnLeaves
12480
Points
AutumnLeaves 02/22/14 - 05:13 pm
1
0
Yes, thank God very few

Yes, thank God very few people were injured. If we get emergency sirens in Richmond County that can be used in case of cascading outages like this followed by OTHER unanticipatible events that might follow unusual weather events, like tornadoes, gas explosions, massive fires and so on, then one-two-three punch catastrophic events like this may also have fewer injuries and damages. We need emergency sirens with manual back ups for people that can't be reached by reverse 911 not only during massive power failures, but those that even in normal, day to day work are out of range of landlines or cell phones. Not everyone has access to their phones 24/7. A LOT of people don't. They matter, too! Don't they? Don't they? I know things like this don't happen very often. That's the WHOLE POINT!!!

Pops
48814
Points
Pops 02/22/14 - 08:14 pm
3
2
I have not heard of any deaths

attributed to the storm. That is good news. The second guessing is unimportant.....much like those doing it.....

Little Lamb
64341
Points
Little Lamb 02/22/14 - 09:30 pm
5
0
SPLOST

Well, Autumn Leaves, your desires for emergency sirens in Richmond County will have to get in line behind the Augusta Symphony, the Augusta Mini-Theatre, Paine College, the Augusta Museum of History, the Imperial Theatre, the Grooo Cancer Center, the Kwatinetz Jazz Café, and many other boondoggles before those desires come to fruition.

griff6035
6506
Points
griff6035 02/23/14 - 08:20 am
5
0
Planters and Jefferson Energy

Look for overflow crowds at this years Membership meetings in Millen and Wrens Ga.

justthefacts
50443
Points
justthefacts 02/23/14 - 10:08 am
3
0
@ dichotomy

Hey, Burninator was making a joke about the billing. Indicating it was probably outsourced to a firm in India. Pretty clever.

Little Old Lady
45879
Points
Little Old Lady 02/23/14 - 12:10 pm
2
1
Emergency Sirens

We have had emergency sirens in the past and they went off so often they became useless. No one paid attention to them. They were very ineffective.

corgimom
55853
Points
corgimom 02/23/14 - 02:58 pm
1
5
There's a cost-benefit

There's a cost-benefit analysis to everything.

Do you really want to spend money to provide for a 1 in a 100 year storm?

Because most of the time, all that money is tied up into unused equipment.

corgimom
55853
Points
corgimom 02/23/14 - 03:00 pm
1
4
I lived in Wisconsin for 3

I lived in Wisconsin for 3 years, where there were tornado sirens.

Most of them went off at night, where people were asleep and nobody heard them.

The ones that went off during the day, well, everybody was awake and already knew that there was a bad storm.

Those sirens are worthless.

corgimom
55853
Points
corgimom 02/23/14 - 03:02 pm
2
4
You also don't need emergency

You also don't need emergency sirens for an ice storm (look out the window, folks!) or an earthquake- if the earthquake is bad, people already can feel it.

Gage Creed
28694
Points
Gage Creed 02/23/14 - 05:24 pm
1
0
Hey Sean.. Why are ignored

Hey Sean.. Why are ignored users visible today?

Edit: Belay that last request for information, at 1623 all is right with the cosmos and ignore once again functions.

jimmymac
94472
Points
jimmymac 02/23/14 - 04:02 pm
0
0
RESPONSE
Unpublished

I believe the response was great. It's virtually impossible given the number of trees in the CSRA to not have extensive power outages when bad weather hits. The trees make the CSRA a beautiful place to live so it's just something we have to accept. Buried power lines would help but the cost would be staggering and I doubt many would like to see their utility bills jump up to pay for it. Like Corgi said it silly to buy a bunch of equipment that might sit for years just in case it's needed.

AutumnLeaves
12480
Points
AutumnLeaves 02/23/14 - 05:41 pm
1
1
People whose lives have been

People whose lives have been saved by emergency sirens are thankful their emergency siren providers thought more of them than cost analysis studies might indicate to numbers crunchers. I didn't say we needed emergency sirens for ice storms or earthquakes, I said you need them for UNANTICIPATIBLE emergencies, for example, things that might FOLLOW ice storms or earthquakes, like massive fires, gas explosions, flooding due to dams failing. If you haven't noticed, there are two significant dams north of Augusta, GA. Read Sunday's (today's) paper about past earthquakes in our quake zone if you think larger, more damaging earthquakes are unprecedented here. We have had at least one larger than a 7.0. For those who think emergency sirens are annoying, (and they can be if not targeted appropriately for the area in danger) I suppose you would put up with a little annoyance if it kept you from burying family or friends, wouldn't you? Or don't you care about anyone? It might keep YOU from dying. Keep in mind, technological advances can target these sirens to a narrower range of the need at hand. Even if, due to unusual circumstances a wider alert goes out that isn't meant for everyone, I don't know about you, but if I can prevent my loved ones, friends, neighbors, countrymen, dying a premature death, I'm going do my best to do it and I don't mind being annoyed in the process, if it doesn't specifically mean a danger in my own area.

KSL
254926
Points
KSL 02/23/14 - 07:31 pm
1
2
My first and only experience

My first and only experience with an emergency siren turned me off to them. Period. My fiancé and I were on a ski trip to Gatlinburg. It was during the Cold War and right in the middle of the Pueblo Incident. Unnerving with no explanation, to say the least.

We had the 2 code red announcements prior to the storm and 4 different phones were alerted after it hit, stay off the roads. (2 land lines)

I think any money spent on warnings should be thru telecommunications, not sirens. Aiken Co is the size of the state od RI and has a lot of rural areas. So much for sirens.

Keep your cell phones charged and have a car charger.

An asside. Joe Torre was staying at the same motel that night. He was still playing for the Braves.

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