At the same time most of the heavy rain ended in Bulloch County by 5 p.m. Wednesday, tropical storm force winds from Idalia began rolling in, causing downed trees and knocking out power for about 11,000 residences and business, mostly customers of Excelsior EMC, as of 8 p.m.
Ted Wynn, Bulloch County public safety and Emergency Management Agency director, said first responders were dealing with multiple downed trees and “with many roads that are flooded from the torrential rain that has occurred most of the day from Hurricane Idalia.”
Making the same request he did Tuesday, Wynn urged all area residents to “shelter in place” and stay off the roads.
When Hurricane Idalia made landfall in the Big Bend region of the Florida coast early Wednesday, the National Weather Service briefly rated it as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum winds reaching 130 mph. In his first public notice of the day, Wynn called the rapidly approaching storm “very dangerous.”
By 11 a.m., the storm had been downgraded to Category 1 strength with sustained winds around 85 mph, but the storm’s track brought the center close to Statesboro. Bulloch County was placed under a Hurricane Watch, and neighboring counties such as Evans and Bryan were under a Hurricane Warning, not tropical storm warnings or watches as a day before. Wynn joined other Bulloch County officials in advising everyone to stay off the roads until Thursday morning.
“Please stay off the roads and allow our crews to focus on response to situations requiring debris clearing and emergency response,” Wynn wrote before sunup. “Public safety and law enforcement will be fully staffed and prepared to respond, but if conditions get dangerous, we will pause response to protect them. Stay safe and things will improve as Thursday morning approaches.”
When about 60 county, city, school system, public safety, volunteer organization and power utility leaders first met in Bulloch County’s Emergency Operations Center at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to coordinate planning, Idalia was still more than 600 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. At that time, the Statesboro area was predicted to receive tropical storm-force winds, meaning winds with sustained speeds between 39 and 73 mph.
Public Works and Transportation Director Dink Butler, whose department is responsible for clearing debris and fixing washouts on Bulloch County’s roads, noted that wind speeds even less than 39 mph often result in fallen trees.
Much rain predicted
Meanwhile, Wynn had passed along information about an equally troubling aspect of the forecast for the Statesboro area.
“Now what has changed for us is the rain forecast, and if you look at this diagram here I think they’re forecasting now anywhere from six to 10 inches of rain are a possibility for us,” Wynn said. “Mr. Butler, I know that is not encouraging for you with the numbers of dirt roads that you’ve got, but this is apparently going to be a significant rainfall event, so we need to be prepared.”
Heavy rains began pelting Bulloch County by 8 a.m. and some power outages, including a
A flood watch was expanded to the entire area, and the bands of rain as well as the winds in them could cause significant impacts, he said.
“We are going to see some probably approaching 50 to 60 miles an hour,” Wynn said.
Chairman Roy Thompson of the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners had signed a local emergency declaration, which Wynn said also covers Statesboro and the other towns, beginning Aug. 29 and lasting until Sept. 28 or until a state of emergency declared by Gov. Brian Kemp expires. The local declaration prohibits overcharging for goods, materials, housing and services and would allow curfews to be imposed.
Advice: Stay off roads
Butler said county road crews are ready and will work to clear roads while conditions are safe during daylight hours. But after dark or during sustained winds, their efforts will be limited to assisting the Sheriff’s Department, Fire Department and other emergency responders.
“We’re not going out in the dark, still clearing roads just for people to travel,” Butler said. “Please, anybody who has no need to be on the road for an absolute emergency, stay home, especially stay off the dirt roads with this rain event coming and projections of the volume of water.”
Sheriff Noel Brown backed Butler’s statement, and Wynn reframed it to advise everyone who can to stay off the roads to do so until Thursday morning if the storm goes through as expected.
Schools closed 2 days
Superintendent Charles Wilson at first said the Bulloch County Schools would be closed Wednesday and that he was considering closing Thursday. Sheriff Brown and County Manager Tom Couch urged that a decision be made during Tuesday’s meeting so that parents, child care providers and employers could plan ahead.
Wilson then said the county schools would close both days, and the school system issued a public notice shortly after 3 p.m.
“Due to the expected local impact of Hurricane Idalia, Bulloch County Schools will be closed on Wednesday, Aug. 30, and Thursday, Aug. 31, for all students and staff,” stated the message from school district Public Relations Director Hayley Greene. “All aftercare services that are held in the district's school buildings will be suspended as well for these days, as well as all athletics and extracurricular activities.”
School officials will continue to assess the weather and campus conditions and issue an update, concerning Friday operations, by 3 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31, she wrote. Individual schools are expected to communicate about specific athletic or extracurricular activities for Friday.
Tax hearing still on
But the first of the Bulloch County Board of Education’s second series of property tax millage increase hearings will still be held as scheduled at 12 noon Thursday, Aug. 31 in the boardroom of the district’s central office, 150 Williams Road, school district staffers noted.
Meanwhile, Georgia Southern University announced “reduced operations” for all of its campuses, with essential personnel only on campuses and all classes to move online Wednesday. Classes will remain online Thursday, but all campuses are expected to reopen at noon Thursday, pending an “all clear” decision from university officials, with normal operations expected Friday.
Joel Hanner, Statesboro area manager for Georgia Power, attended Tuesday’s meeting at the Bulloch County EOC and spoke of the company’s preparedness to deal with storm-caused outages.
Bulloch County 911 Director Kelly Barnard sought to clarify when people should call their electric power provider – either Georgia Power of Excelsior EMC – versus calling 911 about a power line-related problem.
“Remind our citizens that if your power goes out in your house, call your power company,” Barnard asked news organizations. “If it’s a downed power line, that’s a different game then, of course call us for that, but if it’s just someone at their home and they don’t have power, please call the power company, not 911. We get overloaded every time we have bad weather.”
Hanner agreed that the key is to call 911 when there is “an unsafe situation” such as power “lines on the road, lines on a car” but call your power company if it’s simply an outage.
Georgia Power’s storm preparation news release included this advice: “Never touch any downed or low-hanging wire, including telephone or TV wires that touch a power line. Never pull tree limbs off of power lines yourself or enter areas with debris or downed trees as downed power lines may be buried in wreckage.”
Customers can report and check the status of an outage 24 hours a day by contacting Georgia Power at 888-891-0938. Excelsior EMC’s number to report outages is 912-685-2115.
Bulloch County VOAD, or Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, was represented at the meeting by DeWayne Grice. He indicated that volunteer network’s response will be adapted to the actual outcome of the storm.
“We’re prepared to do all of the roles of VOAD, which are debris removal, assisting citizens with tarping of houses through Chris Yaughn (of Broken Shackle Ranch), food needs through Feed the Boro, and then we would also be prepared to do last-chance shelters in case of a large emergency,” Grice said.