What went wrong after the January 2nd storms?

What went wrong after the January 2nd storms?
Storm damage in Albany (Source: WALB)

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - By all accounts, the storm system that broke across Albany in the late-night hours on Monday, January 2nd was unprecedented in our city's history, and perhaps even more destructive than the Flood of 1994. It was a major hit to the city.

But, it was 65 hours later when the Governor's office declared the all-important state of emergency, opening up the flood gates for disaster relief.

Governor Deal said our community hadn't asked for the help before then, and that is why the declaration didn't happen sooner.

But, could there have been other factors at play that delayed the declaration?

We met Mayor Dorothy Hubbard on Don Cutler Drive, the very place where she first realized something was very wrong in Albany.

"I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. I had to be strong," she said.

Strong at a time when tens of thousands of people were without power, homes crushed by fallen trees, roads blocked by an estimated million cubic yards of debris, all caused by unexpected 85 mph winds.

"It happened so fast, it was really unbelievable," said County Commission Chair Chris Cohilas.

As five trees hammered into Chris Cohilas' home that Monday night, he stood over his family, huddled under a mattress for protection.

"I was just thinking, God please get this out of here," he said.

Heartache for thousands, and video shot during the first few hours of daylight Tuesday reveals the widespread destruction across 32 square miles.

"First 72 hours is life-saving. Everything is life-saving," said EMA Director Ron Rowe.

And with every available local resource out and on the ground working toward that end,  one vital resource wasn't in town at first light-- The Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

"Ron had been trying to contact GEMA all night, and eventually we got that call back," said City Manager Sharon Subadan.

No one interviewed for this story could remember just when the GEMA representative assigned to our region arrived in Albany on Tuesday, or if the GEMA rep understood the level of destruction.

"I don't even think when the GEMA person got here that he thought it was this bad," said Hubbard. "I really don't, it was almost like he was saying, 'oh you won't meet the threshold, I mean the threshold is 14 million, blah, blah, blah—' it was like that."

"You know, I don't know all of the answers to that," Cohilas said. "And I am not trying to dodge your question. Because there is going to have to be an after action review, which I have already requested from GEMA. So everyone's actions, decisions, indecision, can be evaluated."

But, one city employee's interactions with GEMA during the days following the storm have been called into question, even before the formal review.

City Manager Sharon Subadan says she was clear on her job. "My role in this was to get people's power back on and clear the streets."

And, making a request to the Governor's office for a state of emergency was not her job.

"That is not my role. That is not my responsibility. I did ask a lot of questions from the GEMA representative on the ground. I just did not get a lot of answers,"said Subadan

An email obtained by WALB between a GEMA analyst and the State's GEMA Operations Director shows that Subadan was communicating with GEMA, although Subadan says this GEMA analyst contacted her first.

In it, the analyst writes that Subadan "advised me that she had plenty of resources and that what she needed help with was paying for them and getting declared."

"She stated that she needed technical assistance from GEMA in getting a declaration."

This email is dated on Thursday just after noon. Three hours later, Governor Deal declared a state of emergency, opening up Albany for FEMA help.

Subadan says while the comment is accurate, she was referring to having enough lineman and debris contractors, and it is a stretch to think she meant the community did not need resources.

"I knew we were going to need a state of emergency," she said.

Mayor Hubbard says criticism of Subadan comes with the job, and she backs her employee. "I can't say I would think she did anything deliberately to hurt this city, I can't."

For now, both the Mayor and the County Chairman say they will work together on evaluating the storm response at every level, including whether the EMA Director had proper state-level support from the beginning.

"There are multiple factors that went into it. Whether or not he was properly supported by GEMA, we are going to have to look into that, absolutely," Cohilas said.

GEMA's spokesperson Catherine Howden says there is no average time table for a state declaration.

She also said the regional field coordinator arrived in Albany sometime around 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, and that he was in touch with people on the ground in Albany "throughout the morning", although no specific time was given and that his actions are "standard practice".

Howden said they are not seeing anything in his response that is cause for concern.

Howden said once the coordinator saw Dougherty County would need extended support, another field support person was called in, and that coordinator moved on to help other damaged counties.

Howden said she has not gotten any feedback from people in Albany on their response, and that all emergencies are a local issue, and that GEMA "relies on the locals for damage assessments" and combined information "all goes into the Governor's decision for a state of emergency."

Copyright 2017 WALB. All rights reserved.