ALBANY — Two weeks into recovery efforts in the aftermath of a devastating Jan. 2 storm system that spawned nine tornadoes and downed hundreds of trees in an eight-county area, including 32 square miles in the heart of the city of Albany, and left thousands of people without power, the strain of the effort has started to chip away at the veneer of the people on the front lines of local recovery efforts.

Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas, in a long Facebook post Friday and in a conversation with The Albany Herald on Saturday, fueled circulating rumors that efforts to bring in badly needed help from state and other available agencies in the immediate aftermath of the storm were hindered or flatly refused due to mismanagement at the highest levels of local government.

And while Cohilas did not mention any names in either the Facebook post or his conversation with The Herald, it was clear that he was pointing a finger at Albany City Manager Sharon Subadan.

“In order to serve the people of a community, the Emergency Management Director has to be able to make decisions quickly without fear of reprisal,” Cohilas said. “The process is managed by a chain-of-command structure established by state law. If that chain of command is damaged, it can obstruct or prevent a community from receiving the help it needs.

“I believe — and Mayor (Dorothy) Hubbard believes — that there was a breakdown in our chain of command that delayed us getting resources here. We have a man in place as EMA director, chief Ron Rowe, who when allowed to do his job, I have complete confidence in. When disaster strikes, fire chiefs rule the world. We could have had boots on the ground in our community on Tuesday if there hadn’t been a break in our chain of command, if Chief Rowe had been allowed to do his job. Mayor Hubbard and I figured out what was wrong, and we fixed it.”

Cohilas would not elaborate on what it took to “fix” the presumed break in the chain of command, but Subadan denied Saturday that she’d done anything to impede Rowe’s efforts to mobilize local and state recovery resources. She also said rumors that she’d turned down aid from a number of available sources were false.

“In my dual roles as city manager and head of the Utility Authority, my job was to get the power back on and clear the streets so that traffic could move through the city,” Subadan said Saturday. “I made no unilateral decisions about (recovery protocol), and I cannot think of any decision that was made in the Emergency Operations Center where (Rowe and I) were not of the same mind.

“At no time did I circumvent anyone’s authority, nor did I do anything to hinder the Emergency Management director. As for rumors that I turned down the offer of help by the National Guard or any state agency, that is categorically, absolutely false.”

Asked about such a rumored disconnect among local officials after a flood recovery briefing Friday, Rowe said there had been nothing during the process that had hindered him from carrying out his duties.

Cohilas, though, insists unnamed city officials refused help from Georgia Power when it was offered and kept Rowe from carrying out EMA duties that would have brought state resources to the region more quickly.

“I’m not going to comment on the action of any city employees right now; I don’t believe it’s constructive,” the County Commission chairman said. “There will be a time to review our government’s response, our leaders’ actions, and the policy/decision making of elected officials during this disaster when this is over. But I do know that from Tuesday until the governor declared a state emergency in the area on Thursday, I was begging for state help. Mayor Hubbard was begging for state help.

“I believe that it was the intercession of Sen. Freddie Powell Sims and Reps. Darrel Ealum and Gerald Greene that played a big role in state resources being made available. The request (for help) needed from our area was delayed in getting to the state, and there was frustration expressed by a number of state agencies. I know why those delays occurred, but I’m not going to get into that now. I will note, though, that 20 minutes after the GEMA officials got here, they started composing texts to send to the governor’s office to seek emergency assistance.”

Attempts to reach Ealum and Sims for comment Saturday were not successful.

When it was pointed out that the initial news release distributed by the EOC indicated that Georgia Power’s help had been sought in light of the fact that a number of city customers have their power supplied by the company, Cohilas insisted that the opposite was true.

“I’ve conducted my own fact-finding investigation into that matter, and I know Georgia Power offered services but were turned down, and not by the EMA director,” he said. “I confirmed that, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I confirmed it through multiple channels.”

Hubbard, who said she had a good Samaritan neighbor cut up a tree that had fallen on her property Saturday, diplomatically said that there was enough blame to go around for the delay in state resources being sent to the region after the storm.

“As soon as this happened, I got a copy of our Emergency Management Plan to make sure we were doing things the way we’re supposed to,” she said. “I don’t believe Ms. Subadan tried to keep Ron (Rowe) from performing his duties in response to the disaster, I’m not sure she knew what the protocol was under Georgia law. I also think it should be pointed out that several of us, including myself and Mr. Rowe, tried to contact GEMA officials throughout the night of the storm, but we were unable to get through to them until the next morning.

“I don’t think any of us were at odds over our attempts to do the things that needed to be done, but there’s enough blame to go around. I think what we had was a situation where everyone was trying to do what they thought was best instead of following the state plan. But, as Chairman Cohilas said, he and I took measures to fix that.”

Subadan responded emotionally to criticism leveled at her by some in the community.

“There’s always room for improvement,” she said. “There are always things that, in retrospect, could have been done differently and, yes, I agree that we need to evaluate our response when this emergency is over. That’s what you do. Mistakes were made when Katrina hit. Mistakes were made when Ivan hit. Mistakes were made following 9/11. But you assess the response and learn from it. If history has taught us anything, it’s that you always can do things better.

“Maybe we could have opened the EOC at 3 a.m. rather than waiting for daylight. I won’t second-guess that, because at the end of the day, it’s life and limb that mattered most to me. Nobody died as a direct result of this storm. We worked long hours to get most of our customers’ power back on. Our community is very blessed. Last Sunday, I needed to be at the EOC, but I was compelled to go to church. I felt a need to pay homage to the Lord for protecting our city.”

The city manager expressed disappointment at criticism she’s received for actions like having staff create a video update of the storm’s impact for members of the Albany City Commission, a video that former GEMA official and current Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital employee Gary Rice praised as a “useful tool” in showing federal officials the extent of storm damage.

“That video was a summary for commissioners of what the community is going through; it wasn’t created to glorify anybody or for political reasons,” Subadan said. “It’s amazing that some people have responded to this disaster with some kind of finger-pointing witch hunt rather than trying to learn what we did wrong and right so that we can get better.

“What I’m not hearing from these people is that (city director of utility operations) Jimmy Norman is a flipping hero, that if it weren’t for him and people like Phil Roberson, Michael Persley, Ron Rowe and others who’ve led us through this catastrophe, we’d be in a worse place than we are right now.

“I’m a public administrator, not an elected public official,” Subadan concluded. “I thrive in executing a plan that makes our city better, and I do my damnedest to do the right thing, to do things the proper way. When people respond with rumor and innuendo, it doesn’t do anyone any good.”

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