County cleanup: Muscogee, Harris, Talbot push to catch up on storm recovery

Repair crews working to clear storm damage along Biggers Road Monday morning March 4, 2019 after tornadoes came through the area Sunday afternoon
Repair crews working to clear storm damage along Biggers Road Monday morning March 4, 2019 after tornadoes came through the area Sunday afternoon Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

The death toll and devastation in Lee County, Ala., wrought by 170-mph winds from Sunday’s tornado overshadowed the destruction the storm left in northern Muscogee County, and in Harris and Talbot.

Those working on recovery and cleanup in those areas Friday were ever mindful of that, always noting the property damage their communities sustained paled in comparison to the 23 people found dead in Beauregard, Ala., and the images of scoured earth where homes once stood.

The EF-4 tornado that wrecked Beauregard first touched down three miles from Society Hill, Ala., at 3 p.m. EST Sunday. After it roared through Beauregard, it hit Smiths Station as an EF-3, with a peak wind of 140 mph, around 3:30 p.m., then crossed the Chattahoochee River into Georgia and cut a swath through trees and homes before it finally dissipated 10 miles outside Talbotton at 4:16 p.m., according to the National Weather Service.

The storm track’s entire length was 68.8 miles, its widest path 1,600 yards in Alabama and 750 yards in Georgia, the weather service reported.

At times all it left in its wake in Georgia were splintered trees and empty foundations, and heaps of debris that authorities hoped to make a strong push toward clearing this weekend.

‘Match sticks’

“It looked like match sticks all the way down,” Columbus Public Works Director Pat Biegler said Friday, describing what was left of the trees along Biggers Road, which remained blocked for days afterward.

The fallen trees were cleared from the roadway Friday, but both Biegler and Deputy Emergency Management Director Riley Land warned sightseers to stay away from the area, as cleanup crews using heavy equipment still were working there, and needed no unnecessary traffic in their way.

Clearing the roadway was paramount, Biegler said: “Public safety is always our priority issue.” But gathering the rest of the downed trees is an ongoing effort that will take more time.

As of Friday, Biegler said 20,000 cubic yards of debris had been cleared from the right of way, and 30,000 cubic yards collected from property off the road. The city was using all of its “grab-all trucks” for storm cleanup, so more routine yard-waste collection was being delayed.

“Citizens may still place their yard waste on the right of ways and we will pick up as quickly as possible with the available equipment and manpower,” Biegler wrote in a news release.

Meanwhile, residents conducting their own cleanup could haul their tree debris to the Granite Bluff Landfill, 7589 River Road. They may dump it there for free if first they get a certificate of approval at the City Services Center off Macon Road at 3111 Citizens Way. They must provide a copy of a residential water bill and show personal identification matching the water bill address, and give an estimate of how many loads they expect.

“We won’t service people who don’t pay their garbage fee,” Biegler said. That fee is added to residents’ water bills.

Absent that waiver, the tipping fee’s about $42 a ton, which works out to about $20 for a full load in a half-ton pickup such as a Ford F-150, Biegler said.

Columbus also had damage in the River Falls neighborhood off River Road, and on Whitesville Road, Woolridge Road and Interstate 185, she said.

Land said Biggers Road was the hardest hit, as the storm seemed to follow the road for almost its entire length.

‘Mind boggling’

In Harris County, the storm blasted through Ellerslie and Waverly Hall, said County Commissioner Becky Langston, who was keeping residents updated on the cleanup.

“Ellerslie was hit really hard,” she said Friday.

Residents engaged in their own cleanup were instructed to take their wood debris to the Harris County Transfer Station, 4070 Barnes Mill Road, Hamilton; or to Ellerslie Park in Ellerslie, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Work crews would be picking up such debris at the curb through March 18, so people should try to get it to the roadside before then, Langston said.

She said 450 loads of debris piled so far in Ellerslie Park would be burned, and it already had formed an impressive mound: “It’s just mind-boggling to look at it.”

Yet the county still has much more to go, she said: “We have barely scratched the surface…. We’ll be working this weekend.”

The county’s state of emergency is about to expire, and then the crews from other agencies will go home, she said: “We’re going to be down to eight people.”

She heaped praise upon neighboring counties that had sent Harris work crews and heavy equipment, including Upson and Troup, and the cities of West Point and LaGrange.

The state Department of Corrections contributed inmate labor, and the Department of Transportation deployed quickly to clear the roads as Georgia Power and Diverse Power restored electricity, she said.

Until further notice, the Harris County Community Center at 7509 Georgia Highway 116 in Hamilton will remain open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for people who need a place to get a hot shower and to recharge electronics. It has a children’s area as well.

A volunteer army

In Talbot County, at least 18 homes were destroyed, and seven had major damage, said Emergency Management Director Leigh Erenheim. All roads had been reopened by Friday, she said.

On Saturday, Talbot County expects an influx of more than 1,000 volunteers to help with a massive cleanup effort. Those coming to work were asked to wear sturdy boots and “weather-appropriate attire” suitable for heavy labor. They did not need to bring power tools.

Erenheim said volunteers would be checked in, registered, briefed and given maps to the areas that need help. The county will have a volunteer “drive-through” check in open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Central High School, 945 N. Washington Ave., where it has adequate space for crews bringing heavy equipment.

Also Saturday, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop and other officials will gather at the Talbotton City Hall, 15 Washington Ave., to inspect the storm damage from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

Talbot residents engaged in their own cleanup were asked to separate construction waste from tree debris, and ensure the discarded building materials include no tires, batteries or paint that would have to be culled from the rest.

The tree debris should be piled at least three feet from the curb, and the building debris at least five feet off the road, and away from any nearby utility poles.

Residents in need of volunteer assistance should call 706-938-4184, Erenheim said.

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.