Hurricane Irma has already resulted in emergency situations in Statesboro and the surrounding area, no matter what portion of the wind and rain comes.
While planning for potential dangers to local life and property, officials also had to consider the needs of people fleeing to, or passing through, the area. An ordered evacuation of the Georgia coast east of Interstate 95 and some points west of it effective 8 a.m. Saturday was expected to add to the stream of Florida residents fleeing northward.
By Friday morning, East Georgia Regional Medical Center was packed with patients and family members. Some of the patients were evacuees from the coast, including residents of Savannah-area nursing homes, and the Statesboro hospital’s leadership needed to figure out how to accommodate more local patients when the storm hit.
“We’re doing our best to get people placed that can be placed, discharge people that are able to be discharged now back home and are otherwise healthy, that sort of thing,” said East Georgia Regional Medical Center CEO Paul Theriot. “That’s what we’re trying to do, so that we can create some capacity for Monday and Tuesday, but currently, right now, we are beyond capacity.”
When the storm arrives, the hospital will encourage employees, such as nurses, who might have trouble driving back from their homes to remain at the hospital, and will feed and house them there, Theriot said. The hospital has multiple layers of electrical power backup, he noted.
“There will be injuries, and we will do our best to treat them,” Theriot said Friday morning.
Get your oxygen
Bulloch County Emergency Medical Service Director Doug Vickers wanted to get the word out to people who are oxygen-dependent to contact their vendors immediately to ensure they have enough to last through the storm.
“We do not have extra cylinders and we cannot provide them with oxygen; all we can do is transport them to the hospital,” Vickers said. “If they can go ahead and contact their vendors, get some extra cylinders or have a number they can call for maintenance, that would be terrific.”
Under Gov. Nathan Deal’s state of emergency declaration, all traffic on Interstate 16 would flow only westward from Savannah, also beginning 8 a.m. Saturday. Normally eastbound lanes will become westbound lanes.
Georgia State Patrol troopers from northern Georgia were being brought in to direct I-16 traffic in the “contra-flow” situation, leaving Statesboro area troopers to respond to emergencies here, said Sgt. 1st Class C.N. Rodewolt, commander of GSP Post 45, Statesboro.
When Ted Wynn, the Bulloch County Emergency Management Agency director, briefed officials of more than a dozen agencies after 8 a.m. Friday, Irma’s course had varied somewhat from earlier forecasts. The officials met in the county’s Emergency Operations Center to coordinate planning.
After devastating islands in the Caribbean, the storm had moved farther west before making an expected turn to the north, and new projections of its likely paths centered on one that drove up the middle of Florida. Such a path, while catastrophic for Florida, was projected to weaken the monstrous storm before it reached southern Georgia. Meanwhile, Irma had been downgraded from a maximally dangerous Category 5 to a still very dangerous Category 4.
Wynn’s message: prepare for the worst anyway.
“The path now looks like it’s coming up through Florida and probably as a minimal hurricane will make the Georgia-Florida line and then continue on through Georgia as a tropical storm, but that puts us on the bad side of it,” he summarized afterward. “That puts us on the side that can bring heavy rain, the possibility of tornadoes, so our reaction has not changed.
“We will continue to lean forward on this particular hurricane and treat it just like it was going to make a landfall on the coast of Georgia,” Wynn said.
Updating further, the National Hurricane Center’s 5 p.m. Friday map of Hurricane Irma’s possible paths showed its center as likely to cross from Florida into Georgia around 2 p.m. Monday. The map also showed Irma slowing to a tropical storm by then.
If even tropical storm winds – 40 mph or faster – arrive here, there will come a time when emergency personnel, such as firefighters and police, cannot immediately respond to calls, several officials said.
“Folks need to make sure that they are prepared to ride the storm out or to seek refuge somewhere else, even if that’s in a more sturdy structure, because once the worst of it comes, we’re going to have to take care of our folks and make sure that we’re able to help them after the storm passes,” said Statesboro Fire Department Chief Tim Grams.
With Hurricane Matthew last October, winds no faster than tropical storm speed were measured here, but two Bulloch County residents died in incidents involving fallen trees.
In a notice Friday to the public, Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown asked that citizens limit vehicle traffic beginning Sunday evening.
“Please be mindful that evacuees from our coastal counties and from Florida may cause many of our roadways to be crowded,” he stated. “Also … our focus during the storm and immediately afterwards will be on rescue and lifesaving operations.”
Brown also asked that calls to 911 be limited to life-threatening emergencies. The sheriff will issue a curfew order before the storm arrives, the notice stated, but it did not predict a time for that.
Power crews ready
Representatives of Georgia Power and the Excelsior Electric Membership Corporation attended the Bulloch County briefing.
While conditions remain dangerous, power crews will respond only to life-threatening emergencies, when called by fire and rescue or law enforcement agencies, said Howard Porter, member services manager for Excelsior EMC.
But crews will be ready to restore power when the storm subsides, he said.
The Metter-based, eight-county electric cooperative has only 30 or so personnel in its own crews, but 112 additional utility workers will be waiting here Sunday to assist, Porter said Friday afternoon. The extra workers include contractors, employees of other electric cooperatives, even retirees. More would become available during the week if needed, he said.
“If we’re not affected by it, we’re going to do our very best to find who’s affected and go and help them,” Porter said.
No public shelters
Statesboro city officials said they were making arrangements for shelters for residents whose homes become uninhabitable during the storm. These individuals or families would be directed to the shelter locations by emergency personnel, said Mayor Jan Moore.
But there are still no public shelters in Bulloch County, since it was forecast to be part of the affected area.
Some churches and other organizations were making arrangements for “Good Samaritan” shelters, and a volunteer umbrella organization, Bulloch VOAD, created soon after Hurricane Matthew, is coordinating efforts to feed and house people after the storm.
The “Bulloch VOAD” Facebook page and the website bullochcountyvoad.org are sources of information on storm response, and more about this group’s effort will be published in Sunday’s Statesboro Herald.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.