(TNS) - With the Atlantic hurricane season well underway, Lowndes County, Ga., officials don’t want folks to think “It can’t happen here.”
The county held its first public hurricane preparedness meeting last week at the James H. Rainwater Conference Center. On hand were county officials, representatives of volunteer organizations and experts on pet safety during evacuations, speaking in front of dozens of interested onlookers.
Home Depot assisted the county with the meeting by providing free five-gallon buckets to all who showed up. The buckets can be used for fast and easy emergency evacuation kits, said Ashley Tye, Lowndes County’s Emergency Management Agency director.
Using a tableful of $1 items purchased from a local discount store, Tye showed how the bucket can be filled with enough food, water, flashlights and other necessities to see someone through three to five days without power, access to stores or help from the authorities. He explained how, in a pinch, the bucket can even be easily outfitted as a makeshift camp toilet with the addition of a plastic bag and some kitty litter.
“During Hurricane Katrina (in 2005), there were parts of Jackson, Miss., that were out of power for two to four weeks,” he said. “It helps if you can take care of yourselves.”
The National Weather Service expects a slightly above-average Atlantic hurricane season this year, with 11-17 named storms, with five to nine of them becoming hurricanes, and two to four of them growing to “major” storms ranked Category 3 (wind speeds of 111-130 miles per hour) on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.
Category 5 is saved for “worst of the worst” storms such as Katrina, packing winds speeds above 157 mph.
The hurricane season began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, usually peaking in August through October, Tye said.
He urged people to remember that Valdosta lies less than 70 miles from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in a straight line. “It may seem like it takes longer to drive to the coast, but hurricanes don’t follow roads,” he said.
Just because a storm isn’t a hurricane doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous, he said.
Officials mentioned Tropical Storm Alberto, which dumped torrential rains that deluged Albany with its worst flood in living memory in 1994, killing 14 people.
“And just because radar shows the eye going in on Louisiana or Texas doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods,” Tye said, because storm winds and feeder bands can extend hundreds of miles from the storm’s center.
Preparation and situational awareness are the keys to survival, Tye said. Plans and disaster kits should be readied ahead of time and shared with family members so everyone knows what to do, he said.
Getting reliable information is vital during an emergency, said Paige Dukes, county clerk and public information officer for the county,
She urged use of the county’s free CodeRED system, which sends weather alerts to phones, along with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radios which receive around-the-clock weather updates, as well as monitoring local media for alerts.
The special needs of pets during an evacuation were dealt with by two speakers. Lowndes County Deputy Justin Tucker — accompanied by his “partner,” canine deputy Lucius — urged people to bring enough water and supplies for their pets and not to leave animals outside during a storm.
Linda Patelski, Lowndes County’s Animal Services director, said people should train pets to get into mobile carriers before the storm hits, and sought the services of two Boy Scouts in the audience to show how easy it is to microchip pets with vital info so they can be reunited with their owners if lost animals are picked up by authorities.
Jamie Bone with Park Avenue United Methodist Church asked people to volunteer with churches and organizations which help evacuees fleeing storms.
Last year, more than 10,000 Floridians fleeing Hurricane Matthew sought refuge in Lowndes County, with hundreds staying at a shelter set up at Park Avenue United Methodist.
Dukes urged residents who want to volunteer time or materials to check with authorities first to see what is needed rather than burden officials with unnecessary goods.
Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.
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