THE NEXT few months could be very difficult for many Chatham County residents.
We’re well into the Atlantic hurricane season and already have one named storm, Isaias, under our belt. NOAA predicts a robust hurricane season this year, with 13-19 named storms of which 6-10 could become hurricanes. (An average hurricane season has 12 named storms, including three major hurricanes.)
The Chatham County sheriff’s office also resumed evictions on Aug. 3. Now, landlords are able to give 30-day eviction notices. Thirty days from now, we’ll be close to Labor Day, which is historically a hot date for hurricanes in our region.
More Georgians than ever are receiving unemployment benefits. Last week, the Georgia Department of Labor said that 3.3 million claims have been processed, which is more than the past eight years combined. But the future of federal benefits is unclear, and many people still haven’t received any unemployment benefits.
Also, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, and the CDC’s current guidelines recommend six feet of distance, which is difficult when evacuating for a hurricane.
This is what Chelsea Sawyer, Emergency Management Coordinator of the Chatham Emergency Management Agency, calls “cascading effects.” Her agency has taken each of these effects, which are singularly difficult but potentially devastating as a whole, into consideration for this year.
In the past, when major storms have come through Savannah, CEMA has utilized the Evacuation Assembly Area at the Civic Center. Anyone who needs evacuation assistance can come to the EAA via a free Chatham Area Transit ride, or they can be dropped off to wait in line.
This year, the process will be a bit different. Each person will be assumed to be COVID positive.
“That sounds a little crazy,” Sawyer acknowledges, “but if you assume that everyone is COVID positive, then you take all the necessary precautions.”
Those precautions include maintaining physical distance in line, giving each person a surgical mask, sanitizing hourly, and the installation of Plexiglas barriers and a no-touch electronic registration system.
The location for evacuation is also an issue this year. In the past, CEMA has had an agreement with Augusta-Richmond County, who will take the first 2,500 people that Savannah evacuates. Sawyer says that number is the typical amount of evacuees, so there’s not often a need to evacuate into other places.
However, this year, CEMA has upped its planning assumption to 4,000 people, while Augusta-Richmond County has lowered the amount of people they can take in.
“They’re looking at capping shelters at 50 people, but we’ve got a planning assumption of 4,000 people, and we’re only one county,” says Sawyer.
Residents in South Carolina and Florida will also head into Georgia to seek shelter.
CEMA is looking for help from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency with finding placements for the residents. They also work with the American Red Cross, who Sawyer calls the “sheltering gurus.”
“Our number one priority is the health and safety of our workforce, our volunteers, and our clients,” says Maria Center, Executive Director of the Southeast Georgia Chapter of the Red Cross. “Our preferred method of sheltering someone impacted by a disaster would of course be a non-congregate shelter, such as a hotel or a dorm in a college. But we know that in the event of a large storm, traditional shelters will be necessary and we’ll have to open congregate shelters.”
Part of the need to move to congregate shelters is that lack of available spaces for evacuees. (Believe it or not, but middle Georgia didn’t experience an explosion of hotels like Savannah did.)
Congregate sheltering can pose a big risk for the transmission of COVID-19, but Center assures that the Red Cross shelters will be in accordance with all CDC guidelines. That includes screenings for each person, required masks, and isolation areas for anyone who is suspected or confirmed to be COVID positive.
Center says that the Red Cross is planning on more sheltering facilities to allow for fewer residents in each shelter, as well as shorter stays for the residents. She notes that the Red Cross is looking for volunteers who are able to work in the shelters.
“In the event of a large storm, it will be so much better to have people who are local and familiar with the community,” she says.
Center points to Category 5 Hurricane Matthew in 2016 as an example of the scope of what the Red Cross offers during a major storm. For that hurricane, Red Cross workers operated 45 shelters and evacuation centers statewide, which totaled 17,000 overnight stays and 165,000 meals and snacks.
As we move closer to September, plans will be firmed up for evacuees who will need those services.
“We’re fighting for the same areas, same resources, same things,” says Sawyer. “Thankfully, we have great partners, and we’re very hopeful we’ll find a good solution.”