Originally created 09/23/05

Storm's lessons get city prepared



As Hurricane Katrina came closer to Louisiana and Mississippi, Chief Howard Willis, the head of Augusta's Emergency Management Agency, said he knew the storm would devastate the gulf coast.

But he said officials didn't realize how much the storm would affect the city - by sheltering numerous evacuees and sparking a brief panic over gas prices and supplies.

As Hurricane Rita bears down on Texas, the chief said those lessons, along with others, will help the city deal with any impact from this storm, and with future emergencies.

"Anything can happen at any time," said the chief, who's also the interim head of the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department.

The chief said he's learned to expect evacuees for longer periods of time than just three to five days in a disaster.

He said he initially didn't expect as many evacuees from New Orleans to arrive in Augusta.

"Normally, we're a reception center," he said. "With this, we're going long-term. Some might stay 90 days, or possibly a year. Some may never go back."

While most evacuees from the Houston-Galveston area probably won't head east to Georgia, Chief Willis said officials are preparing to receive them in case they show up in Augusta.

"All indications are that they'll be sent north, like to Oklahoma or Iowa," he said, "but at any time we may have some more who come to live with relatives here. And there are some that might get on the road and go as far as they can."

In the wake of the Aug. 31 gas panic - when area consumers rushed to gas stations as prices rose after Hurricane Katrina knocked out facilities and pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico - he said officials have a plan to get reserve fuel for emergency vehicles in case of another shortage.

Officials are still preparing for emergencies other than hurricanes, too.

For Augusta, the biggest hazard is the possibility of flooding, Chief Willis said.

A lesser threat, but one emergency officials include in their plans, is that of a failure at J. Strom Thurmond Dam.

While Columbia County has a map online showing areas that would be inundated with water in the event of dam failure, Augusta's Web site doesn't yet.

Chief Willis said officials in the Augusta Information Technology Department's Geographic Information Systems Division are working on making that information available through the county's GIS Web site, mapweb.augustaga.gov/augusta. He didn't have an exact date of when that will be completed.

The Web site is used to show maps of property records and currently can display flood zones in the county - not necessarily caused by a dam failure - as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The maps are available for inspection at the EMA office off of Fourth Street, or at the Planning Commission office on Telfair street, Chief Willis said.

Reach Jeremy Craig at (706) 823-3409 or jeremy.craig@augustachronicle.com.