SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Five years ago, Chatham County experienced Hurricane Matthew, which left tens of millions of dollars in damages in its wake.
Chatham County Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) Director Dennis Jones says it was “basically a reality check.”
Thousands of trees were ripped down in the intense winds, which damaged countless homes and power lines. That in turn prompted power outages that affected some residents for days.
And while Matthew was what Jones calls mostly a “wind event,” he says there was still flooding.
“We see typical flooding with a severe thunderstorm that comes along, but actually seeing the impacts of what storm surge can possibly do allowed us to see the realities of what a tropical system could do to our community,” said Jones.
Jones says the biggest lesson goes back to before the hurricane even hit, i.e. trying to evacuate thousands of people. During Matthew, CEMA used a plan to evacuate the entire county in two zones — but that put too many people on the roads at one time.
“One of the big key takeaways after Matthew was we split the largest zone into two zones. So now, we have an A, B, and C,” Jones explained.
- Zone A : From the Islands to the Truman Parkway
- Zone B: Truman Parkway to I-95
- Zone C: I-95 to the Chatham County line
The plan means people on the Islands (connected only by bridges to the rest of the county) evacuate first. In Matthew’s aftermath — a few days after many had evacuated and were trying to return — there were issues with some residents trying to get to Tybee after state authorities said no one could pass until the bridge was inspected.
Still, Jones says most municipalities controlled their own reentry schedules. But because of lessons learned in 2016, he says state authorities will not control reentry.
“So, the reentry process is going to be handled by the state. It is still contingent upon the locals being ready to receive citizens as well as whether those communities have resources and supplies,” said Jones.
He says there were also up to 2,500 people who had no personal transportation who were evacuated from the Savannah Civic Center via bus to a shelter in Augusta. But he says now, CEMA is working with the American Red Cross and state authorities to find shelter locations close to Savannah.
Jones says CEMA continues to work on preparedness and encourages individuals will do the same.
“And do that by having an emergency kit and an emergency plan,” he said. “Those are two basic foundational items that everybody in Chatham County can do.”
Jones also encourages people to stay informed about current weather events.
“It’s very important that we ensure that everyone is aware; ‘weather aware’ is what we call it,” said Jones.