Guest column: Recovery from the April 5 tornado, part 2

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Editor’s Note: The News asked Bryan County Communications Director Matthew Kent to provide readers with an overview of the April 5 tornado that hit North Bryan. This is part 2.

By Matthew Kent, Bryan County.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines four phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Bryan County follows these steps when a disaster occurs, no matter how small. Much of the work takes place behind the scenes and every action is aimed at the safety of people and the protection of property.

The recovery process is long and we will be there for a while. We began moving into the recovery phase on April 6, 2022, just one day after the storm hit. Recovery not only includes rebuilding lives and buildings, but includes all other actions taken until we return to normal. Many of these steps can, if not handled well, be a minor disaster in themselves.

The outpouring of generosity from the community has been enormous. In fact, at one time we had enough toothpaste and water for 500 families. Many of these physical donations are good for short-term recovery so those affected receive the items they need to live, now. For long-term recovery, we have started to move to monetary donations because, over time, monetary donations are the most effective. Bryan County Family Connection (BCFC) set up shop at Lanier Primary and initially handled the receipt and distribution of donations. They have played a fundamental role in ensuring that the influx of donations does not get out of hand. However, BCFC, with its extremely limited staff, has not stopped since the storm and is working to meet all the needs of displaced families. As you can imagine, there’s a lot more than toiletries you need to worry about when your house is destroyed.

Lanier Primary was also the site of other assistance programs for storm victims, such as the Georgia Insurance Commissioner’s Claims Submission Assistance, Crisis Counseling, Assistance Programs, the recovery of articles, etc. Making these programs a one-stop shop in a close location minimizes some of the stress when families have so much to do. Gov. Brian Kemp also used Lanier as a venue to sign a declaration of a state of emergency, which implements laws to prevent price gouging and fraud by contractors and offers other state resources to to help.

Volunteers have arrived by the hundreds to help and they are extremely important to the recovery effort. Just as during the response phase, if Bryan County only had current personnel to rely on, the effort would take much longer to achieve the same goals. It is extremely important that all volunteers are accounted for and assigned to tasks. There are many dangers when it comes to downed trees, power lines, damaged buildings, or even moving donation boxes. We have created teams of volunteers with different skill levels to keep everyone safe, prevent further emergencies and use volunteers in the right places. Some volunteers have arrived as part of organizations specializing in disaster relief, such as Team Rubicon, which has chainsaw teams, or the Red Cross, which specializes in shelters. These teams also work with us to ensure they do the work most needed at the time.

We needed a plan to deal with the over 1,000 dump truck loads of plant and construction debris caused by the storm. Public Works has been working to remove this huge amount of debris every day, and other counties have sent resources to help. If we were officially declared by FEMA as a disaster area, every ton of debris counts toward the $19 million in uninsured damage required. That’s why there’s a large pile of debris in Hendrix Park awaiting FEMA’s decision. Once the decision is made, it will then be shredded and some will be offered to the public as mulch.

The county had to find alternate locations for the public to do business and play sports, as much of the courthouse complex and Hendrix Park were badly damaged. We are unique in that we have locations in Pembroke and Richmond Hill. Many services can be completed at the Richmond Hill site or in partnership with schools and businesses, with the exception of state and higher courts, which must be held at the Pembroke County seat. Finding temporary accommodations for certain departments, such as these courts, is still an ongoing process.

All of the above has happened over the past few weeks, but there is still a long way to go. Residents whose homes and cars were damaged are working with their insurance companies to rebuild. Those without insurance have several resources offered by the federal government, such as low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA). The name is a bit misleading as they offer homeowner loans.

We work with our insurance companies and, like homeowners, we have to decide what to rebuild, how to pay for what we rebuild, and whether to take this opportunity to improve what we had. Bryan County is growing and will eventually need to expand these damaged facilities.

The recovery phase of a major event can last a decade, but for this tornado we are waiting a few years to return to normal. Then we move back, hopefully, to the longer parts of emergency management, which are the mitigation and preparedness phases.

We’ll cover them in Part 3 next week.


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