Getting answers for GEMA response time after the storm - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Getting answers for GEMA response time after the storm

(Source: WALB) (Source: WALB)
(Source: Chris Cohilas official Facebook page, screenshot) (Source: Chris Cohilas official Facebook page, screenshot)
ALBANY, GA (WALB) -

Amid questions about GEMA's response time after eight tornadoes and two damaging wind events hit South Georgia on the night of Monday, January 2, Dougherty County's EMA Director said a GEMA rep was on the ground in Albany hours after the storm.

Ron Rowe said that the regional GEMA representative was in Albany Tuesday morning, January 3.

Dougherty County's Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas has been critical about the role unnamed local officials played in perhaps delaying GEMA's response time, both on social and traditional media.

He posted a lengthy message on his official Facebook page praising EMA Director Ron Rowe's leadership, and saying that he and Mayor Dorothy Hubbard have "eliminated obstacles" in the "chain of command". 

We reached out to City Manager Sharon Subadan to ask her questions about the criticism and how she communicated Albany's needs with GEMA and when, but she deferred our questions to Chief Ron Rowe.

Rowe said he doesn't know how the city manager communicated with GEMA, but said many people called GEMA in the hours and days following the storm asking for help in Albany.

"The way I understand it, and it is totally an understanding, that several people spoke to GEMA, but I don't know who did. As with any disaster, I would think that multiple people would do things like that," said Rowe. 

The Governor said he had to wait on an official request from Albany, which he told us was Thursday, January 5, before enacting the state response on Thursday.

Cohilas' full post can be read here:

Important. This Editorial raises many fair and reasonable questions that the public and their elected officials have a right to have answers to and which must be answered. That is the appropriate role of the media—to scrutinize government and matters of public concern. Government’s response to any natural disaster has to be reviewed and analyzed thoroughly so that the public can evaluate the performance of its leadership, both staff and elected. Additionally, thorough post-incident evaluation is of tremendous benefit for purposes of improving disaster response in the future. All of this will happen. It has to.

I want to provide some important information about how both local, State, and Federal law require communities to act in the event of a state of emergency. There are three layers: 1) County Declaration of Local State of Emergency; 2) State of Georgia Declaration of State of Emergency; and 3) Presidential Declaration of Federal State of Emergency. Georgia law recognizes County Government as the body necessary to declare a Local State of Emergency. This is because County Government represents the entire community. Our community is comprised of the unincorporated County and the City of Albany. Citizens in both areas were hurt by the disaster and continue to suffer from its tremendous impact.

The first step is to declare a local state of emergency. That is a responsibility which falls upon the County Commission Chairman as the Chief Elected Official of the County. A declaration of local state of emergency then vests complete authority in the County’s Emergency Management Director. The Emergency Management Director is the chief officer which serves over the County’s Emergency Management Agency. He/She is appointed by the County Government. Typically, the appointment is vested in a Fire Chief or someone with an extensive background in disaster response. The County’s Emergency Management Agency is comprised of all local governmental entities. For purposes of responding to the Emergency, each governmental entity is under the direction and control of the Emergency Management Director. Because State and Federal law recognizes the importance of emergency response to preserve life and property, the Emergency Management Director is vested with tremendous responsibility and authority to be able to issue directives, make requests, and allocate resources so as to best respond to the needs of the people. Stated simply, the Emergency Management Director controls all of the community’s resources for purposes of responding to the emergency and preventing further loss or harm to the people.

Upon a declaration of a local state of emergency, the Emergency Management Director no longer serves in his/her pre-declaration capacity, i.e. if they were the Fire Chief, they are no longer the Fire Chief—They are solely the Emergency Management Director and can only be removed or appointed by the County Government, which represents the entire community. He/She cannot be supervised and/or directed by anyone. He/She controls all of the community’s assets, County, City, Utility, School System, etc. for purposes of responding to the emergency. It is a vesting of tremendous power, which is reflective of the awesome responsibility to respond quickly on behalf of an entire County citizenry for purposes of a disaster. Upon a declaration of a local state of emergency, the Emergency Management Director becomes the only person who can legally request support services from State Government. The law sets forth the chain of command, and it must be followed. All information must flow to the Emergency Management Director, all executive decisions must be made by him/her, and all requests for State resources must be communicated by him. While elected officials can informally request for help—the needs of the community can only be expressed by the Emergency Management Director.

Failure to scrupulously honor the chain of command can have very bad results—which may include but are not limited to some of the following: 1) The needs of the community not being properly communicated; 2) affirmative miscommunications regarding the degree of the disaster; 3) delay in achieving news relevancy and thus attention from a more widespread volunteer base; 4) delays in receiving help via a State declared State of Emergency; 5) delays in the provision of local resources to the people.

The needs of the people, in a time of emergency/disaster, cannot be viewed in terms of dollars and cents. While the provision of resources during an emergency may be very costly to Government, the provision of those resources, prevents further loss to individual citizens. Government is owned by the people and should shoulder losses in a time of disaster collectively on behalf of all of its citizens during a state of emergency. This prioritization serves to protect lives and property. This is precisely why the law requires that Government vest the responsibility of emergency management to an Emergency Management Director, and not an elected official or department head acting in their respective official capacity. An Emergency Management Director has to be able to respond to the emergency to help the people as a whole. No one should interfere with the authority of the Emergency Management Director or attempt to exercise operational supervision over his/her decisions. The Director has to have tremendous latitude to respond to the ever-changing and emerging needs of the people.

The chain of command structure that the law requires provides the people with efficient communication and response to their needs. It is important. Critically important.

The Mayor and I believe strongly in the chain of command structure required by the law. We believe strongly in vesting appropriate decision making in an Emergency Management Director who is charged with exercising tremendous powers and authority on behalf of the people. We, in turn, communicate the needs of the people, as we see and ascertain them, directly to him and assist him through policies and/or seeking political help from our local and federal delegation. That is how it is supposed to work.

I have previously communicated that I was not happy with the delay that occurred with respect to the request that the Governor declare a State of Emergency. I am not. Neither is the Mayor.

I, along with the Mayor, have taken decisive internal action to specifically affirm the chain of command structure that is required by law and vests authority in our Emergency Management Director. The direct affirmation of the chain of command structure by the Mayor and I has resulted in a far more efficient and effective Emergency Management Agency, and further, a provision of an environment where our Emergency Management Director can best communicate the needs of our citizens and exercise the decision-making authority that he is vested with over each agency in Dougherty County during this disaster. I have further appointed special consultants through strategic partnerships to assist our Emergency Management Director during this incredible time of need. The resources needed for this disaster are phenomenal. They should not be underscored and our people, though strong, are hurting.

Our Emergency Management Director Rowe is a good man. The Mayor and I have watched him work tirelessly for the past 11 days. He has tremendous experience as the Fire Chief for the City of Albany and in providing those services to the unincorporated Dougherty County. He knows this community, loves this community, and has bled for this community. He has hardly slept in the past 11 days. The loss of his presence to his personal family has been immense, and citizens should thank him and his family for his selfless sacrifices. Pray for them during this time.

The Mayor and I have full confidence in Emergency Management Director Rowe. We have directly affirmed his authority to lead us through this disaster. That direct affirmation has eliminated obstacles and turned on the provision of much needed resources to this community, improved our community’s ability to ask for help, and prevented further delay. EMA Director Rowe is very capable and knows our needs. We need to support him and his family.

There will be a time to review our government’s response, our leaders’ actions, and the policy/decision making of elected officials during this disaster. That is important, and both I and the Mayor look forward to having our own decision making/policy decisions thoroughly and publicly scrutinized. I want that personally, so that I can be a better leader, and further so that the people who elected me, can have that information, when they decide whether or not I am worthy to hold the office to which I was elected. I, further, want and invite that scrutiny so that those who follow me, can learn from any failings or successes that I personally achieved in my capacity as Dougherty County Commission Chairman. The Mayor likewise shares my desire for scrutiny and review.

I do not wish for the public to “not complain” or call into question any decision that they may not agree with. That is the public’s right and no one can take that from them. I would merely suggest that, for the time being, that we as #OneAlbany stand together and continue to focus our attention most squarely on the issue at hand—recovering from this disaster and requesting and receiving the #HelpAlbany needs. Thorough analysis and review will happen when the work is complete. However, in the meantime, I do want to communicate to the public that the Mayor and I have worked collaboratively and strategically to provide an environment, where we are confident that our Emergency Management Agency can most efficiently meet the needs of the people of Dougherty County.

Our Emergency Management Agency is very stable and is working very well. Resources are now coming in every day and Emergency Management Director Rowe is leading us.

Sincerely,

Christopher S. Cohilas

District 152 Rep. Darrel Ealum, wrote a letter for the beginning of the 2017 legislative session talking about the impact the storm had on him and his family.

Copyright 2017 WALB.  All rights reserved.

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