Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a series of stories dealing with Hurricane Michael, which slammed into southwest Georgia a year ago, its impact and ongoing recovery efforts.
ALBANY — Albany and southwest Georgia had seen more than their share of weather-related calamity over the past half-century: 500-year floods, deadly tornadoes, devastating straight-line winds, crippling drought, life-threatening heat waves.
But nothing could have prepared residents for the Oct. 10, 2018, devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael. Sea-born storms packing Category 3-level winds are not supposed to sustain themselves over more than 100 miles of landfall.
Michael, though, had other ideas. After making landfall on the Florida Gulf Coast at Mexico Beach, all but wiping out that quaint community, the storm moved on a path that carried it through southwest Georgia, laying waste to major portions of Donalsonville, Bainbridge, Colquitt, Newton, Albany and parts of Leesburg and Cordele before finally losing steam.
A community that had seen two deadly and devastating storms a little more than a year before — part of a region that became a presidentially declared disaster area and was already receiving recovery help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — woke up on Oct. 11 to new destruction that left many to wonder if they’d personally offended God to the point of calling forth His wrath.
Around 90 percent of the customers on the city of Albany’s utility grid lost power, some for as long as eight to 10 days, and the city’s primary water source — wells at Albany Utilities’ Lily Pond Road facility — was threatened and drew the immediate attention of Public Works and utilities crews.
“Of the 52 electric circuits in our system, only three have power,” City Manager Sharon Subadan said on Oct. 11 at a hastily put-together news conference at the Albany Fire Department’s Honeysuckle Drive training facility, where many Albany and Dougherty County officials had hunkered down to monitor the hurricane. “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.”
Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach as a Category 5 storm, with peak, sustained winds estimated at 160 mph. It was the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall along the Florida panhandle. When it entered southwest Georgia as a Category 3 hurricane, packing wind gusts as high as 115 mph, it became the first major hurricane to directly hit Georgia since the 1890s.
The storm caused extensive destruction throughout its path, which included substantial agricultural production areas. Before the hurricane hit, the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture estimated the market value of agricultural products sold in Georgia to be $9.6 billion. Those sold in Florida were valued at $7.4 billion.
Immediately after the hurricane, experts from the University of Georgia and the University of Florida estimated that losses to agricultural production exceeded $2.5 billion in Georgia and $1.4 billion in Florida.
Local officials who had been through several weather-related upheavals while serving the area were left to ponder this latest display of Mother Nature’s wrath.
“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,” Dougherty Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas said on the day after the storm. “Mayor (Dorothy) 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 3 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.’”
Some of Michael’s most devastating blows were endured by southwest Georgia farmers. More than a few simply went out of business or permanently stopped farming.
In addition to crop loss, Hurricane Michael inflicted catastrophic damage to farmhouses, outbuildings, equipment, fencing, irrigation systems and perennial plantings. As a result, the ag sector faced mounting costs for cleanup, replacements and repairs. Unfortunately for these people whose livelihoods literally hung in the balance as time to prepare for the new planting season drew closer, partisan political bickering in Washington kept vital farm disaster relief from being approved until almost a year after the storm hit.
Many farmers are just now trying to work their way through the tedious process of securing funding to make up for losses that for many wiped out a full year’s worth of labor.
“There was one of the crops my brother and I had grown that we were looking to make a six-figure profit on this year,” Lee County farmer Justin Jones said. “As it turned out, we had a seven-figure loss. We had more than 80 percent loss of our pecan crop.”
Pecans were among Michael’s hardest hit agricultural victims. As Alex Willson of Sunnyland Farms explained, the devastation will play out over years, not weeks and months.
“The trees that were lost, you don’t grow them back in a year or two,” he said. “After you go through the cost of cleaning up, you have to replant. It’s then from six to 10 years before you start to see any pecans on the new trees.”
When power was restored in the region, weary southwest Georgians began — again — the process of cleaning up and, for many, starting over.
Volunteer groups, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, disaster recovery centers, disaster recovery teams, the Army and Air National Guard and donation collections were all vital to the recovery efforts.
Dougherty County EMA Deputy Director Jenna Chang told the Dougherty County Commission that the recovery process would likely take longer than expected due to the widespread impact.
“All our surrounding neighbors are in the same shape we are in,” Chang said.
Now, a year later, recovery continues. Blue tarp-covered homes are still a common site, and holes exist where residential and business structures once stood. The federal and state governments, both quick to promise their support in the immediate aftermath of the storm, have been slow to get needed funding to individuals and agencies now left in limbo.
Many of the hardest hit have moved on, looking for a new beginning elsewhere. Others trudge forward, not quite sure if their lives will ever resume a level of normalcy. But there is always hope, city and county officials have assured the storm-weary population. They continue to call on the strength and will of a resilient population.
As Hubbard said on the day after Michael hit, “This is a devastating storm. But we’re a strong community, and we’ll get through it. Just like we got through it before.”