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Hurricanes in Georgia: A Question of When, Not If

December 13, 2013

Originally published May 20, 2013

Sally Silbermann, public information officer for Coastal Health District 9-1, has lived in Savannah for nearly 23 years. But she has never been through a hurricane.

"We have faced a lot of very real threats and near misses over the years," she said, including a massive evacuation of nearly 3 million residents of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina as Hurricane Floyd threatened in 1999 (the storm changed direction and Georgia was spared).

That has been the story for Georgia for more than a century. The state has had a handful of hits from minor storms in the past 100 years, but no major hurricanes have hammered the coast. That track record is enough to make anyone feel comfortable -- unless you work in public health or emergency management.

"When it comes to Mother Nature there is never a good time to let your guard down and that holds especially true from June 1 through Nov. 30," otherwise known as hurricane season, Silbermann said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season will be a highly active one. Emergency managers across Georgia have learned from a handful of natural disasters over the years -- Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and most recently, Superstorm Sandy -- that luck favors the prepared. That's why agencies around the state take part in a massive, year-round effort to make sure the state is ready when, not if, Georgia's hurricane luck runs out.

The teams are charged with thinking of the unthinkable and making a plan to handle it. They are also the people who monitor weather forecasts and make calls that can affect thousands of people as a storm churns toward the coast.

Even minor storms could have a substantial impact on the state, said Bruce "Jeff" Jeffries, DPH's acting deputy director of DPH'S Division of Health Protection. For example, emergency officials know that a Category 2 hurricane at high tide would flood Savannah's Riverwalk and portions of Interstate 95, complicating evacuation and rescue efforts.

"We don't take any of these storms for granted," he said.

But as emergency managers everywhere can attest, convincing residents not to take storms for granted can be challenging. Coastal Health District 9-1 communicates with residents all year on its website, via social media and through community outreach efforts to tell them the importance of preparing for a hurricane when the skies are still clear. The district also maintains the Functional and Medical Needs Registry, a list of citizens who may need transportation or medical assistance during a hurricane evacuation but won't have other help from family, friends or community groups. The registry has to be advertised, updated and maintained constantly so emergency managers have an accurate guide when making critical decisions in the days before a hurricane.

Silbermann said she thinks most residents understand the area is at risk, but others may not take that risk seriously.

"It is a challenge to constantly persuade those living along the coast that any year could be the year that a hurricane bears down on our coast and they need to be ready," she said.

Jeffries agreed.

"Complacency is part of the business," Jeffries said. "We know there are a lot of folks who won't listen. And that does create anxiety for us."

Complacency is a particular risk for those who live far inland and may think hurricanes are only a coastal problem. But hurricanes bring high winds, drenching rains and even tornadoes that can affect people living throughout the state by downing power lines and trees, flooding buildings and roads or bringing evacuees from coastal areas who need shelter, food and medical care. Even hurricanes that hit other states can affect Georgia. That's why Georgia works with seven other neighboring states to plan for coastal evacuations and hurricane responses for storms that hit anywhere along the Atlantic or Gulf coasts.

"There's no way that any one state can handle a large hurricane alone," Jeffries said.

Experts' advice for people living anywhere in Georgia is simple: make a plan for a hurricane before the storm hits. Residents in coastal areas should know if they live in an evacuation zone; if so, families should make decisions about sheltering in place or evacuating, including where to go and how to get there. Whether staying or evacuating, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that families gather enough supplies to survive for at least 72 hours on their own. For more information on making a plan, visit www.ready.ga.gov.

Jeffries suggests that Georgians stay informed about weather conditions by monitoring weather reports or subscribing to weather alert services, such as those recommended by the National Weather Service.

But perhaps most important is to never assume that a hurricane won't hit Georgia, even if the state has gotten lucky so far.

"Just because you dodged a bullet last year doesn't mean you'll be as lucky this year," Jeffries said.