ALBANY — A driver moved slowly past a group of young ladies clearing remnants of a large pine tree that fell across Madison Avenue and other debris from the yards of adjacent residences, stopped briefly, shook his head and offered an assessment that many in Albany shared Thursday morning.
“This is getting to be routine, ain’t it?” he said before driving away.
The damage throughout Dougherty County the day after Hurricane Michael tore through Florida’s Gulf Coast as a massive Category 4 storm — the largest to hit the U.S. mainland in a century — reached Georgia still a Category 3 storm and was still packing Category 2 winds as it reached Dougherty County some 120 miles away was anything but routine, though.
More than 90 percent of the Albany Utilities Authority’s customers, 24,720 customer accounts, according to City Manager Sharon Subadan, were without power Thursday morning after powerful sustained, relentless winds that reportedly gusted up to 100 mph tore down trees, ripped facades off the fronts of businesses and left a path of destruction that Dougherty County Administrator Chris Cohilas said was “in some ways worst than the storms of January 2017.”
Those storms that hit the city Jan. 2 and Jan. 22, 2017, left in their wake an assessed damage in excess of $1 billion.
Cohilas, Subadan, Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard, Albany Fire Chief Cedric Scott, Assistant County Emergency Management Deputy Director Jenna Wirtz Chang, Albany Police Department Chief Michael Persley and Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul assessed Michael’s damages at a news conference at the city/county Honeysuckle Drive Emergency Operations Center Thursday morning.
“Of the 52 electric circuits in our system, only three have power,” Subadan said. “Right now, 24,720 customer accounts have no power — that’s customer accounts, so you can multiply that by families and it’s a big number. We have 31 of our employees working on restoring power, 33 visiting linemen are in the county, 45 more crews are on the way, and when Georgia Power makes a statewide assessment of damages, they’re going to let us know what’s available.
“Our No. 1 priority right now, though, is our wells. We’re working to assure that we don’t lose our water infrastructure. If (contamination levels) go below 20 psi, we’ll have to shut it down. EPD is recommending a precautionary boil-water notice, but that’s not really practical right now when more than 90 percent of the people in the city have no electricity.”
Subadan said 10 broken gas lines had been reported, but “all are safe at this time.”
Cohilas, whose property was severely damaged in the January storms, called on the resiliency of city and county residents in yet another natural disaster that tore through the community.
“There is not a single human being that I know of in this county who has power right now that is not being supplied by a generator,” the commission chairman and acting Emergency Management Agency director said. “Mayor Hubbard and I are already advocating for any help we can get from our federal partners, but we’re literally assessing the problems as we go.
“I never dreamed when I moved here that I’d experience a Category 2 hurricane 120 miles from the coast. Our infrastructure is just not designed to withstand that kind of destruction. But our citizens have shown tremendous resilience and self-reliance. I have no doubt that we’ll come out of this ‘Albany Even Stronger.’”
Power was restored in several parts of the city just before noon.
Hubbard, who said she was shocked by the devastation she saw throughout the city, noted that the latest storm to bring destruction to the community was “regional, not just an Albany/Dougherty County issue.”
“I’ve gotten reports from surrounding communities, and many of them were hit hard, too,” the mayor said. “Bainbridge and Donalsonville were particularly devastated. The one thing I’m most thankful for today is that, so far, we do not have a report of one death or injury that’s storm-related.”
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital President/CEO Joel Wernick, who attended the news conference, confirmed Hubbard’s report.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in our emergency room over the last 10 hours, and I can report that no one with storm-related injuries came in,” Wernick said.
Subadan said that city officials were using drones to capture overhead images of the devastation, and Chang said city and county personnel are undergoing a house-by-house assessment to determine damages.
“We’re working on a grid system to make sure every portion of the community is assessed,” she said.
Both Persley and Sproul encouraged citizens to stay off the streets except for emergencies and asked that anyone with storm-related concerns to call the EOC at (229) 483-6226 0r (229) 483-6227.
“We’re asking that everyone have patience, patience, patience,” Sproul said.
While the news conference was ongoing, Hubbard received a letter from William Crozer, a Thomasville native who is an assistant to President Trump.
“He actually called me yesterday,” Hubbard said. “We made a connection when I visited the White House (with a group of mayors), and now I think that connection is paying off for us. Mr. Crozer shared with me a letter from the president assuring us that the federal government is going to act quickly to help us.”
Cohilas said city and county officials will “not be bashful about asking our state and federal partners for any assistance they can provide.”
Hubbard offered a measure of hope as she ended he remarks.
“This is a devastating storm,” she said. “But we’re a strong community, and we’ll get through it. Just like we got through it before.”