ALBANY — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now working in more than a dozen counties in southwest Georgia, removing storm debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
After the Corps got the green light to move forward, work began at a tremendous pace.
The expectation is that, with hundreds of trucks on the ground in Dougherty, Seminole, Miller, Mitchell, Decatur, Lee, Early, Crisp, Terrell, Baker, Calhoun, Worth and Grady counties, the public may see their neighborhoods cleaned of debris sooner than anticipated.
“We are working out of all 13 counties,” Joshua Jimerfield, a debris subject matter expert with the Corps, said. “Now our main issue is the weather.”
In Dougherty County, the Corps started work on Oct. 26 before protests almost immediately put a stop order on operations for a week. The stop order was lifted while the protests remained administratively active.
Stop orders that were also instituted in Lee and Early counties last week have since been lifted as well.
Once work got underway, Jimerfield said the Corps was met with some wet weather that caused mud and soft soil to slow the process down. He said wood chips and gravel have been put down to give some friction to pathways. A streetsweeper has also been utilized to clear roads that crews are working on.
Jimerfield has been involved with nearly a dozen disasters, and he said that Hurricane Michael differed from other events in scope and size. In the 13 counties the Corps is active in, sectors of teams are focusing on three or four counties — and those teams have an engineer working with a number of quality assurance personnel.
The stop order resulting from the protests allowed more time for the recertification of the trucks from which crews would be working. Jimerfield estimated there were more than 400 certified vehicles in the field on Wednesday, allowing crews to hit much of the debris at once.
Jimerfield said the reception in southwest Georgia, among the general public as well as community leaders, has been striking.
“Everybody has been extremely patient and understanding,” he said. “The community has been amazing. In that regard, it has been the best disaster I have worked with.
“We reach out on a daily and weekly basis with county officials.”
Concerning the pace of the contract, Jimerfield said a timeline has been discussed — and those timeframes are being exceeded.
“I don’t want to set a date, (but) debris is moving quickly,” he said.
Col. Daniel Hibner, commander of the Corps’ Savannah district, said up to four protests were taking place at one time — and measures were taken to resolve them quickly due to the compelling circumstances stemming from the amount of debris left behind.
He said a surge of personnel was brought in to provide a sense of normalcy for hurricane victims once the work started.
“We do everything we can to provide that relief for them,” Hibner said.
Hibner rose to his current post a few months ago, so this is the first debris mission over which he’s had oversight. In the event of an incoming natural disaster, federal and state emergency management officials work with the Corps as well as local leadership to provide response before and after a storm if assistance is needed.
He said sets of teams devoted to certain tasks, ranging from debris removal to utility breakdown, pack their bags before a storm in anticipation of responding.
“That sets the (tone) to hit the ground running,” the colonel said.
In order to accommodate quick response, a model is built to project what a storm’s impact will be. In the case of Hurricane Michael, which developed into a major hurricane fairly quickly, Hibner said the models were able to predict that those on the ground would likely see damage equivalent to what a tornado might do.
“We knew there was a lot of speed and it was coming in strong,” he said. “This thing was coming in with a lot of speed. It didn’t carry a whole lot of water.”
Hibner said he is pleased with the swiftness crews are able to work, but that safety has to be the top priority.
“We want to make sure they are able to go home to their families when it is all said and done,” he said. “I am really looking forward to getting that momentum and getting that moving.
“(The community) has been great hosts to the Corps of Engineers. It always makes the mission so much better.”
In Dougherty County, debris management sites are currently operating on Gillionville Road, Oakhaven Drive and off of Jefferson Street and 11th Avenue. A site on Oakridge Drive was shut down because of water issues.