Storm response could have been better, say some Augusta officials

 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.”

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