It could have been so much worse.
“We’re actually pleased that we seem to not have gotten the brunt of the wrath that we were expecting,” Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said Tuesday of Tropical Storm Irma.
Before it hit Monday, the predictions had been dire: High winds and heavy rains likely to cause widespread damage and flooding.
But that was not to be.
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“On Saturday, we really thought we would have 80 or plus mile-an-hour gusts, which would have given us some very serious damage here in Columbus. ... We did indeed dodge a bullet, caught a break, however you want to phrase it,” she said.
The south side of that storm sheared off, and we were able to make through just the north side, and by that time, it had dissipated.”
Instead of widespread damage, the Columbus area had isolated pockets of destruction, primarily from large trees with roots weakened by saturated ground toppling in wind gusts up to 40 mph.
With Columbus’ storm warnings canceled Monday night, city cleanup crews went to work until 1 a.m. Tuesday, their priority opening blocked roads, where they could. If downed trees had power lines tangled in them, city workers had to wait for Georgia Power to ensure removing the debris was safe.
Director of Public Works Pat Biegler said private citizens need to take the same precautions, and not try to move downed trees that have power lines in them.
Anticipating collecting more yard debris in the weeks to come, the city is suspending regulations requiring homeowners to pay the city a fee to haul away a tree that fell on private property.
This “tree for fee” policy normally charges $50 per load plus landfill fees. The moratorium will last 30 days, until Oct. 13, Biegler said.
That fee suspension is for homeowners only, Tomlinson stressed. Private contractors such as tree services are expected to haul off the debris they generate, not pile it at the curb for the city to collect.
Residents clearing down trees and limbs are to cut them into sections no more than 4 feet long for collection. Biegler advises homeowners to avoid piling that debris around mailboxes, water meters or other stationary objects on the right of way, lest the grab-all trucks the city uses damage them.
City garbage pickup was suspended Monday. Crews will collect that trash Wednesday.
Shortly before a Columbus Council meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Tomlinson said about 2,000 Columbus residents still had no electricity, but Georgia Power crews were working on that.
“Tomorrow we’ll be full-bore, city services will be up, school will be back in, and it will be back to normal life in Columbus,” she said.
All but essential city personnel were off Monday and Tuesday as city government offices closed in anticipation of Irma’s projected disruptions, and Muscogee County schools were closed.
Florida and Georgia coastal evacuees brought to storm shelters in Columbus over the weekend were boarding buses Tuesday to return home.
Though the storm had passed, authorities warned motorists that weakened trees still could topple across roadways.
“Everything is not back to normal,” said Columbus Police Maj. J.D. Hawk. “You’ve got to be driving with extreme caution.”
Some traffic lights still weren’t working. Drivers are to treat intersections where traffic controls aren’t working as four-way stops, with the motorist who gets there first being the first to cross. No one is to drive through without stopping first, Hawk said: “Nobody has the right of way.”
Across the Chattahoochee River in Russell County, more than a dozen agencies coordinated a day-long effort Monday to reopen roads as soon as residents reported trees blocking them, said Bob Franklin, head of the county’s emergency management agency.
“It appears most of our roads are open,” Franklin said Tuesday.
Along with county engineers and the sheriff’s office, emergency management worked with 11 volunteer fire departments to share information and avoid duplicating efforts, he said. As soon as one agency reopened a road, it let the others know, he said.
“I was proud to be from Russell County,” Franklin said of the inter-agency coordination.
It was complicated because the damage was so scattered, he said: “It’s not like tornado where you have damage concentrated in one area.”
Because the storm’s projected rain was not as heavy, no roads were washed out, he said: “I had no reports of flooding.”
Evacuees leave Civic Center
A four-day stay for Liberty County evacuees ended just after noon Tuesday when school buses left the Columbus Civic Center.
Adelaide Kirk, executive director of the American Red Cross of West Central Georgia, said Liberty County officials thought it was OK for evacuees to return home after arriving in Columbus late Friday. “They are headed back to their home,” Kirk said.
On the county’s website, Liberty County Board of Commissioners in Hinesville, Ga., lifted the mandatory evacuation order at 8 a.m. Tuesday and said all residents will now be allowed to return home. Officials noted that many areas are still without power and debris remain on many of the roadways.
With their departure, Kirk said there are still just shy of about 500 evacuees remaining at the Civic Center. Those remaining are from Glynn and Camden counties inside the shelter. The Red Cross and Deputy Emergency Management Director Riley Land are in contact with officials in their county.
“Right now officials have not said it was OK for them to come back,” Kirk said. “For now, they are here with us at least a little while longer.”
At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Glynn County officials said on its website that residents must meet reentry requirements to return to homes in Brunswick. The county also includes Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island and Sea Island. Assessment teams are deployed to the area to repair damage from power outages, limited water and sewer, fallen trees, downed power lines and flooded neighborhoods. Law enforcement personnel are restricting entry at various checkpoints to those not meeting reentry requirements.
The requirements allow reentry to those with a green Critical Workforce Disaster Re-Entry Permit, a form of personal identification as well as a business ID.
A voluntary evacuation was still in effect in Camden County which includes the cities of Kingsland, St. Marys and Woodbine.
Staff Writer Ben Wright contributed to this report.