Athens-Clarke County's Tropical Storm Irma Response
On Monday, September 11, Tropical Storm Irma hit Athens-Clarke County and affected the community throughout the remainder of the week and beyond. During the storm, the Athens-Ben Epps weather station recorded gusts of up to 53 miles per hour. The Unified Government was affected by and responded to Irma before, during, and after the storm in a number of ways as detailed below.
"The Unified Government staff did an unbelievable job in the response mode, particularly those out in the field dealing with poor conditions, citizens in distress, and other issues related to Tropical Storm Irma," said Manager Blaine Williams. "Many of them worked long hours in stressful situations that changed rapidly due to the weather. They were also away from their families, who were often experiencing the same concerns and hazardous environments as other residents did at their homes. I am extremely proud of the way in which all of our departments and offices worked together to respond to the needs of the community."
Overall Unified Government
- On Friday, September 8, key Athens-Clarke County departments and offices, as well as community partners, met to discuss preparations for the coming storm. The decision was made during the meeting to open an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for the storm.
- An EOC serves as a central point for emergency management operations. The purpose of this central point is to ensure coordinated responses when the emergency involves more than one political entity or several response agencies or departments.
- The EOC opened at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, September 11 at the Athens-Clarke County Police Department headquarters on Lexington Road. It operated until 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 12. This is the first time that a physical EOC had been established for the Unified Government in recent memory.
- Managed by the Emergency Management Administrator, decision makers from all relevant departments worked 12-hour shifts in the EOC to more effectively coordinate responses.
- The EOC included representatives of the Central Services Department, Emergency Management Agency, Fire and Emergency Services Department, Georgia Department of Public Health, Leisure Services Department, Police Department, Public Information Office, Solid Waste Department Transportation and Public Works Department, and University of Georgia throughout some or all of its entire operation.
- At approximately the same time that the EOC went into effect on Monday, September 11, Manager Blaine Williams declared a local emergency according to the provisions of Chapter 3-4 of the Athens-Clarke County Code of Ordinances. This allows for the temporary exercising of certain powers and procedures if needed for the protection, well-being, and safety of inhabitants of the community. The declaration ended on Tuesday, September 12 at approximately the time that the EOC closed.
- Non-emergency workstations closed at 3:00 p.m. on Monday, September 11 in order to allow staff to safely transit home before the peak winds hit as forecasted at 5:00 p.m. General operations of the Unified Government resumed on a regular schedule as of Tuesday, September 12.
- A number of Athens-Clarke County facilities had power losses at different points during the storm and afterwards. Key facilities such as the EOC, two water reclamation facilities, the 800 MHz radio towers, and the Streets & Drainage Division facility, all of which lost power at different times, have emergency back-up power sources such as generators or other backup system that are used in situations such as these. The backup systems worked as expected.
Building Inspections & Permits
- Coordinated the initial damage assessment responses beginning Thursday, September 14 to visit damaged properties, verify their damage, and categorize damages for repair and recovery efforts for possible federal relief.
- Initially coordinated training and the dispersing of all building inspectors for damage assessments and later added the coordination of other volunteer Unified Government staff members who were trained by the Emergency Management Administrator for additional initial damage assessments.
Central Services Department – 800 MHz Radio System
- The digital 800 MHz radio system that allows emergency and non-emergency responders to communicate with each other, and with other agencies, including the University of Georgia Police, operated flawlessly throughout the storm with no damage.
- At one point, all four radio tower sites were operating on emergency generators due to power outages. The generators functioned as expected with no loss of transmission capability.
Central Services Department – Facilities Management Division
- Minor roof leaks or other minor damage occurrences were reported at the Courthouse, City Hall, Corrections, the Dougherty Street Government Building, Fire Station #1, Fire Station #8, the Leisure Services Shop, the Leisure Services Operations Building, the Lyndon House Arts Center the Public Utilities Water Resource Center, the Satula Avenue Building, and the Solid Waste Maintenance Shop.
- All emergency generators operated properly throughout the storm.
Central Services Department – Fleet Management Division
- One Fire Department sedan broke down during the storm and was towed to Fleet Management for repairs.
- One Police Department marked sedan was heavily damaged by a falling tree during the storm. The officer was not injured in the incident.
Central Services Department – Landscape Management Division
- On Monday, September 11 Landscape Management spent 364 staff hours on cleanup of 52 sites until 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
- On Tuesday, September 12 through Friday, Landscape Management worked with Solid Waste in tandem to clean up debris piles from an additional 71 sites on roadways previously cleared by the Transportation and Public Works Streets and Drainage Division. The division spent 1015 employee hours, assisted by 400 inmate hours, working on debris clean up during normal working hours.
Central Services Department – Internal Support Division
- Established a call center at the EOC for non-emergency citizen calls that was staffed by volunteers from the University of Georgia Medical Reserve Corps and organized by the Emergency Management Administrator. It operated 24/7 throughout the time that the EOC was in effect.
- This call center was then re-deployed to allow citizens to report private property damage to assist in reporting for possible federal relief assistance. It opened on Friday, September 15 and runs daily from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. until Friday, September 22. Callers may also leave voice mail during other times. The phone number is 706-613-3330 option 4.
Fire & Emergency Services Department
- The Fire Department responded to over 210 storm-related responses.
- The Emergency Management Administrator managed the activated EOC and coordinated overall response efforts during the storm and its immediate effects, as well as coordinated the initiation of recovery efforts and initial damage assessment processes for providing information to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for possible federal relief.
Leisure Services Department
- Leisure Services coordinated sheltering operations for the EOC. Shelters housed evacuated animals from a Nature Center on Skidaway Island, people from Florida and Savannah (Beechtree Baptist Church), and homeless populations (Bigger Vision), as well as provided safe haven space for those in the Athens-area threatened by the storm (New Covenant Worship Center).
- Leisure Services programs and events were cancelled on Monday, September 11 through Wednesday, September 13 in conjunction with the Clarke County School District closures.
- Parks and facilities closed as of 3:00 p.m. on Monday, but re-opened on regular schedules as of Tuesday, September 12 except for Bear Hollow Zoo. Some facilities operated under limited resources due to power outages.
- Fallen trees and wind caused damage of varying degrees at Bear Hollow Zoo, Bishop Park, Boulevard Woods, Dudley Park, Holland Park, Memorial Park, Morton Theatre, Sandy Creek Park, Southeast Clarke Park, and Trail Creek Park.
- Some of Bear Hollow Zoo's exhibits remain closed due to damaged fencing that continues to undergo repair.
- Fallen and hazardous trees impacted all 33 trails across the Leisure Services system. Staff have removed over 100 trees from parks and trails.
- One of the boardwalks on Cook’s Trail sustained severe damage from a large tree. Repairs will likely entail closure of the boardwalk and through-trail access for considerable time.
- From Monday, September 11 until 1:30 p.m. on September 12, Central Communications received 791 9-1-1 calls and 618 non-emergency calls (1,409 total) through their system. During this time, 145 events involved debris/trees in the roadway and 99 events involved power lines down.
- For purposes of comparison, in August Central Communications averaged 263 9-1-1 calls and 240 non-emergency calls each day (503 total). Usually, only a few calls each day involve debris in the roadway, while none report power lines down unless there is a storm or another specific event.
- Police brought in additional officers for call responses on Monday, September 11 and Tuesday, September 12, as well as additional communications officers to help with call volume.
- A non-emergency call center was established using an option on the Police Department's main phone number and received over 100 calls during the main storm event.
Public Information Office
- The Public Information Office utilized athensclarkecounty.com, media releases, website notifications via email/SMS, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Nextdoor, and ACTV Cable Channel 180 to produce continual information for the citizens and media in relation to Tropical Storm Irma changes, cancellations, and safety tips. Information campaigns began on Friday, September 8 and continued through the following Friday.
- The PIO also answered citizen questions via email, social media, and by phone in regards to Irma-related questions.
- The PIO also quickly produced two videos from materials filmed in the field highlighting concerns conveyed by other departments, including one advising residents not to clear, move, cut, or remove downed trees from roadways, and one advising of proper stopping procedures for signals that were without power or in flashing modes.
- The PIO created an online form allowing residents to report damage to their property as part of the initial damage assessment process for possible federal relief.
Public Utilities Department
- Due to power fluctuations, which highly mechanized operations do not tolerate well, the North Oconee Water Reclamation Facility and the Middle Oconee Water Reclamation Facility were switched to generator power. The Cedar Creek Water Reclamation Facility uses a dual-electric power system and was not affected. The Beacham Water Treatment facility stayed in continuous power.
- Due also to the power changes, the North Oconee and Middle Oconee facilities were placed into manual mode for operators to process water reclamation. The North Oconee remained in manual mode for several days after the event while some of the equipment issues were resolved to better handle power fluctuation issues in the future.
Solid Waste Department
- Leaf and Limb collection suspended collection during September 11-15 to assist with debris clean up. During the week, they disposed of 1440 yards of debris, in addition to multiple trailers of debris loaded and unloaded working with the Streets and Drainage Division and Landscape Management Division.
- For the six-week rotation cycle after the storm, restrictions have been lifted on individual pile limits and the length of time that debris can be placed at the curb.
- Collections were suspended for residential collection on Monday, September 11 and Tuesday, September 12 and limited on Monday for some commercial collection. Residential collections missed on September 11 and 12 were collected on September 18 and 19 with overflow being collected at no additional charge.
- The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) was closed through Saturday for debris staging. This allowed for debris to be dumped at a more centralized location without driving each time to the landfill for disposal. The CHaRM opened for regular use on Monday, September 18 and was grinding storm debris on site for use by Landscape Management at Athens-Clarke County properties.
- The Athens Transit System operated on a break schedule and later suspended operations as of the afternoon of Monday, September 11. It operated on a break schedule on Tuesday, September 12 with hourly service on all year-round routes and no service on routes 21, 22, 23, 28 & 30.
Transportation and Public Works Department - Streets & Drainage Division
- The department reported over 200 trees completely or partially blocking roadways throughout the event. At least 63 of those included trees in power lines. For safety purposes, power lines required repair by the relevant utility company prior to Athens-Clarke County crews removing the trees and opening the roads.
- Crews worked throughout the night on Monday, September 11. They worked until after 10:00 p.m. each night through Thursday night and cleared any roads that were safe to clear as of when Georgia Power crews' completed their shifts at 10:00 p.m. each night.
- All roads were open to traffic as of 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 14.
- The Street and Drainage Division worked with Central Service's Landscape Management Division and the Solid Waste Department to cleanup sites where debris was pushed to the shoulder to allow Streets and Drainage to quickly open up roads for traffic. Landscape Management and Solid Waste initially worked to clean debris while Streets and Drainage focused on opening roads. Once all roads were open, Streets and Drainage assisted with cleaning up additional debris. All sites were cleaned and cleared by Monday, September 18.
Transportation and Public Works Department - Traffic Engineering Division
- Traffic Engineering crews closed off roads during the storm as calls were received related to fallen trees and power lines down. These closures allowed other crews to assess needed responses while keeping the public away from potentially harmful situations.
- Traffic signals at 40 intersections were without power as of the morning of Tuesday, September 12. All traffic signals were functional by the night of Friday, September 15.
- Traffic Engineering checked the signal systems for all signals. When the power was restored, the timing plans and clocks were initially out of sync, leading to signal timings that were off. Traffic Engineering is continuing to make adjustments as necessary.
- A falling tree knocked down the traffic signal at the intersection of North Milledge Avenue and West Hancock Avenue. Due to its location on State Route 15, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) has ultimate responsibility. Working with Traffic Engineering, GDOT used emergency funding and installed a temporary signal as of the afternoon of Thursday, September 14. GDOT will redesign and rebuild the signal at a later date.