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Relationships are Key in Preparing, Responding and Recovering from Disasters

June 13, 2016
Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency Field Coordinator Jason Ritter and Houston County Emergency Management Agency Director James Williams inspect damage to a home.
A strong relationship between city officials and the county emergency management agency ensures when disaster strikes, there will be coordinated support from dozens of agencies, local and federal, and organizations, private, faithbased and non-profit, all dedicated to restoring the community to its previous condition.
 
Each of Georgia’s 159 counties has an emergency management agency tasked with the planning, development, educational outreach, budget and overall coordination of the county’s emergency management program.  They are also the primary point of contact and liaison with city officials, the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
 
When a tornado ripped through the city of Warner Robins in early April, firstterm Mayor Randy Toms knew his constituents would need assistance clearing fallen trees from their homes. He immediately turned to Houston County Emergency Management Agency Director James Williams who recommended a local State of Emergency. The ordinance allowed volunteer organizations to coordinate moving debris from private property to the public right-of-way. A day later, the United Methodist Conference and Georgia Baptist Mission Board sent disaster response teams to help out the recovering community.
 
“This was my first disaster and I completely relied on Chief William’s knowledge to guide my department heads and me through the process and paperwork,” Toms said. “I’ve known Jimmy for more than 30 years and I have absolute trust in his character and his years in the emergency business. Our relationship is indispensable to me and vital to the safety of Warner Robins and Houston County.”
 
No county in Georgia has escaped the wrath of a weather related disaster. There were 17 major disasters in the past two decades and 38 since 1953. But these high profile disasters don’t begin to encompass the hundreds of smaller localized disasters that didn’t reach the federal threshold but affected their community nonetheless though power outages, extensive debris piles and local government property damages.
 
According to a National Weather Service survey team, the Warner Robins twister touched down at 7:42 a.m. with 90 mph winds. Within the hour Williams, who also serves as chief of the Houston County Fire Department, was in contact with Mayor Toms and Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency Field Coordinator Jason Ritter.
 
“The reason to forge relationships is because when a tornado comes through your area, you don’t have time to figure out who the mayor is and how to contact him,” said Williams, who has served as EMA Director since Tropical Storm Alberto flooded much of middle and south Georgia in 1994. “You need his cell phone number and you need to know his department heads so decisions can be made quickly.”
 
In addition to supporting municipalities during response and recovery of natural and manmade disasters, county emergency managers steer city officials in applying for certain federal grants offered through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and coordinated through the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency. Earlier this year, the city of Danielsville received a $107,064 reimbursement grant for the purchase and installation of four fixed generators to serve two water wells and two sewer lift stations. Williams and Toms agree that facilitating a durable partnership between the county EMA and the municipality starts in the first days and months of a new administration.
 
Williams says that he meets with the mayors of Centerville, Perry and Warner Robins quarterly. Toms, who served 27 years as a firefighter in Warner Robins, also recommends getting to know all emergency workers; fire, police and public works.
 
“It’s important to understand the level of experience and training available to support your team and the whole community,” Toms said.
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