June 24 – Sections of Interstate 95 collapsed into the Turtle River, floodwaters swept through Brunswick streets, and high winds shattered homes on St. Simons Island.
Hurricane Claire, the fictional Atlantic storm selected for a training exercise Thursday by emergency responders, slammed ashore as a killer Category 4 hurricane before dawn Saturday at the county line between Glynn and Camden, causing devastation not seen in that area since the killer storm of 1898. Claire’s fury raged throughout the day and into Saturday evening, riding a high tide to wreak untold havoc and threaten the lives of thousands of people.
“We’re looking at utter devastation,” Glynn County Emergency Management Director Andrew Leanza said during the practice scenario.
County and municipal public works crews who were on standby outside the Golden Isles rallied at first light on Sunday, but the mere act of navigating their way through shaken pleasure boats, trees shot down and wrecked mobile homes littering US 17 proved quite daunting.
“Our first priority will be the roads,” said Glynn County Public Works Director Dave Austin.
County fire, law enforcement and emergency management followed closely, establishing staging areas to initiate search and rescue operations and restore order.
“We are arriving with enough police to combat potential violence and civil unrest and to begin initial rescue efforts,” Glynn County Police Chief Jacques Battiste said.
Water and sewer crews moved in simultaneously, along with local, state and national utility companies, as they began the slow work of restoring infrastructure amid the destruction. “If you see a downed line, assume it’s hot,” warned Brunswick Fire Department Deputy Chief John Tire.
Despite warnings issued early and often of mandatory evacuation before Claire approached, the data indicates that barely a third of the county’s population heeded the order.
“We’re going to be overwhelmed with search and rescue,” Tyr added.
An untethered gargantuan barge rolled over onto the shores of the northern end of Jekyll Island, its accompanying tugboat now floating upside down in St. Simons Sound.
“And Marshside Grill in Brunswick, oh no,” lamented Al Sandrik, a weather forecaster for the National Weather Service in Jacksonville. “My favorite restaurant. There are no more.”
Luckily for all, the reach and magnitude of Hurricane Claire was limited to the confines of the County Emergency Operations Center, 157 Public Safety Blvd. The strength of the storm, the timing, and the resulting devastation were concoctions presented by Sandrik and the National Weather Service to test the preparedness of priority responders in the area in the event of an actual hurricane.
More than 70 people filled the EOC meeting room, representing agencies and organizations that form the core of priority responders when a real hurricane threatens to make landfall locally. In addition to county and municipal public safety departments, the tabletop exercise included authorities from Brunswick Hospital of Southeast Georgia Health System, Georgia Power, the Joint Water and Waste Commission Brunswick-Glynn Sewers, Georgia Ports Authority, Glynn County Airport Commission, County Schools Police, College of Coastal Georgia Police and many more.
Sandrik has coordinated the annual hurricane drill in Glynn County for two decades, but Thursday’s exercise was his last. “And he had to see us go with a Cat 4,” Glynn County Schools Police Chief Rod Ellis said, referring to Hurricane Claire’s mighty punch.
On top of that, Claire’s imagined approach coincided with a fictional Nor’easter storm front, all headed inshore at high tide.
Austin didn’t have to strain his imagination too much to see the problem behind this scenario.
“You have a hurricane coming and the glass is already full,” he said, referring to the Nor’easter rainfall. “There’s nowhere to go for water. And the ground is soggy. Now the real wind is coming in and the trees are ready to go.”
In the event of a true Hurricane Claire, the weather service would place a field meteorologist in Glynn County as well as Jacksonville, Sandrik said. Our county is second only to Jacksonville in population, and the Glynn Lowlands marshes have serious flood potential, he said.
Claire was accompanied in the exercise by widespread flooding, including a 10- to 14-foot storm surge on Park Avenue near SGHS Hospital in Brunswick.
“Due to its geography and demographics, Glynn County has an extremely high probability of loss of life,” said Sandrik, who is resigning from the weather service to start a private business. “It has one of the highest storm surge potentials in the United States”
With Claire downgraded to a tropical storm in Alabama, the folks inside the EOC room started thinking about putting all the pieces together in Glynn County. Leanza walked around the room, asking a representative from each entity what her next move was.
The Airports Commission would make it a priority to get Brunswick Golden Isles Airport back up and running as soon as possible, creating a faster lane for inbound recovery efforts. Although floodwaters reached its first floor, hospital workers monitored patients who could not be moved and moved quickly after the storm to get back up and running.
Local officials coordinated support efforts with state and federal agencies, from the Army National Guard to the Red Cross and the U.S. Coast Guard.
One by one, those in the room added their individual plans to the bigger picture of hurricane recovery.
Perfection was not the goal of the exercise, Sandrik reminded them.
“I hope and pray that you come out of here with at least one or two gaps in your plan that you can work on,” he said. “If you didn’t find any gaps today, you’re wrong.”