Emergency management, police, road crew, fire department and school officials in the Statesboro area started planning their response to Hurricane Hermine while it was still headed our way off the western coast of Florida.
Four to eight inches of rain, sustained winds of for 35-45 mph and 50-55 mph gusts and a slight risk of spinoff tornadoes were all in the National Weather Service forecast for the Statesboro area. At least that was the case soon after Ted Wynn, director of the Bulloch County Emergency Management Agency, spoke to 30 or so professionals from county, city, school and college agencies in Bulloch County’s Emergency Operations Center at 10 a.m. Thursday.
“This is going to be a fast mover,” Wynn said. “I think everything indicates it’s going to move pretty fast and be out of here probably sometime Friday evening, based on the latest forecast from the Hurricane Center.”
Before the public safety personnel had left the building, they learned that Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 56 counties, Bulloch among them, potentially making more state and federal funds available to help local governments with costs.
By the end of the day, not only the Bulloch County Schools but all neighboring counties’ school systems – Bryan, Candler, Effingham, Emanuel, Evans, Screven – that didn’t already have a Friday holiday had cancelled Friday classes. Most schools are closed in a much wider region.
All local Friday night high school football games are cancelled. Georgia Southern University also canceled Friday classes, but the Eagles 6 p.m. Saturday game against the Savannah State Tigers is still on.
Wynn, as usual, emphasized preparing for likely problems while noting there were no certainties, given the tendency of tropical storms and hurricanes to change speed and direction. As of Thursday morning, the Weather Service predicted a likelihood of tropical storm force winds, meaning above 39 mph, arriving south of Interstate 16 by 6-8 a.m. Friday and in the Savannah area between 8 a.m. and noon.
Wynn adopted the Savannah area forecast for Bulloch, and said the heart of the storm was likely to pass over Statesboro between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Friday. But Hermine, still a tropical storm when he spoke, was upgraded later to a hurricane while yet to make landfall in the Florida panhandle, as it was expected to do during the night.
The National Weather Service maps put the most likely path of the storm a little to the east of Statesboro. Spinoff tornadoes most often appear on the eastern edge of a larger storm, but a tornado in a 50-mile radius was about a 50 percent possibility, according to a Weather Channel index Wynn mentioned.
He called more attention to the general prediction of 35-45 mph winds with 50-55 mph gusts.
“Couple that with the heavy rains, and I think you’re going to see a lot of trees down,” Wynn said.
Winds that strong could also cause minor damage to buildings, he added. The forecast of several inches of rain across the area also came with a statement that greater amounts are possible in isolated areas.
“The good news is it’s been pretty dry, so we’ve got some places for rain to go in some of the low-lying areas, but I think if we see four to six inches you will see some localized flooding,” Wynn said.
A later National Weather Service local advisory said four to eight inches.
Creeks may wash over roads, and Statesboro’s drainage system could be compromised in some areas, he said.
Logging the cost
Wynn advised the public works departments to fill all mobile fuel tanks, service chainsaws, and possibly give crew members some time off Thursday afternoon in case they have to work more this weekend clearing trees and fixing roads.
Bulloch County Transportation Director Dink Butler said that was how he was proceeding, including giving employees the pre-storm time to “take care of anything they may have around home, to get battened down in preparation for getting called back.”
One crew would report in Friday morning, with the rest on emergency standby, Butler said. His department includes about 25 correctional officers, some of whom operate heavy equipment as well as supervise inmate labor. Bulloch County Correctional Institute inmates, sanitation workers and correctional officers provide a total workforce of about 100 if needed, he said.
“Any debris clearing would come first to get roads accessible, and then any washed out roads would come secondly,” Butler said. “Public access for emergency response would be the priority.”
Statesboro Public Works and Engineering Director Jason Boyles said the city has about 30 people available to do similar work.
“We started prepping yesterday (Wednesday),” he said. “All of our chainsaws are sharpened, all of our equipment is fueled, our personnel are working tomorrow or are on standby ready to be called.”
Wynn advised emergency and public works officials to log all work hours and expenses in responding to the storm. After the February 2014 ice event called Winter Storm Pax, Statesboro, Portal and Bulloch County together received about $280,000 in federal disaster funding, he noted.
Georgia Southern University now has its own emergency management director, Kelly Nilsson, who introduced herself to the other agencies’ representatives during the meeting.
In announcing its Friday class cancellation, the university asked students and employees not to travel during the storm.
“For students and university personnel planning to travel outside of the area for the weekend, you are encouraged to do so on Thursday, Sept. 1, and adhere to all local and state travel advisories,” said the statement provided by GSU Communications Director Jennifer Wise.
Those remaining on campus or in the area were “encouraged to stay indoors and off of the roadways.”
But the statement added, “All home Georgia Southern Eagles athletic events will continue as scheduled.” The address GSEagles.com and the Twitter handle @GSAthletics were provided for updates.
With Friday’s cancellation, Bulloch County Schools students have a five-day weekend. Monday is Labor Day, and the schools will also be closed for students Tuesday, a professional development and planning day for faculty and staff.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.