Two storm 'heroes' talk about Phoebe employees after storm

Phoebe sustained storm damage estimated at $3.2 million. (Source: WALB)
Phoebe sustained storm damage estimated at $3.2 million. (Source: WALB)
Dr. James Black helped neighbors, residents off Holly Drive. (Source: WALB)
Dr. James Black helped neighbors, residents off Holly Drive. (Source: WALB)
Gary Rice helped with disaster recovery full-time with Phoebe and for 45 days with Dougherty County. (Source: WALB)
Gary Rice helped with disaster recovery full-time with Phoebe and for 45 days with Dougherty County. (Source: WALB)

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - Dougherty County's largest employer, also Southwest Georgia's safety net hospital, took a massive hit during the January storms.

But, Phoebe didn't miss a beat, treating patients without interruption despite sustaining storm damage totaling more than $3.6 million, and having some 400 employees adversely affected by the storms in varying degrees.

Here is a look at how they did it from the perspective of two men whose actions were nothing short of heroic in the wake of the storms.

"You have to remember this happened in the middle of the night, we had no idea what daybreak was going to bring us," said Gary Rice, Phoebe's Emergency Preparedness Manager.

Daybreak on January 2, 2017, revealed widespread destruction, including damage to Phoebe's Main Campus.

The hospital's radio tower was snapped by 85 mph straight-line winds, cutting communication.

And, in the surrounding neighborhood around 3rd Avenue, giant trees toppled across roads, blocking roads and causing a massive power outage.

But, Phoebe prepared in advance, taking action like fueling emergency generators.

"We knew there was a possibility of storms coming, so we were trying to lean forward as far as we could to prepare in case we got hit," recalled Rice.

Rice's job quickly evolved beyond making sure Phoebe was able to carry out its mission.

Dougherty County Emergency Management Agency leaders made a special request, asking Rice bring his decades of disaster recovery experience to the county's team.

"We were hit hard, but we weren't hit as hard as the community," said Rice.

With the blessing of Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick, Rice went to work alongside local, state and federal emergency disaster officials.

"The first 48-72 hours of a disaster is making sure everyone is okay and accounted for. Then you transition into recovery. Okay, the storm is gone, how do we now start rebuilding to get back to where we were," said Rice.

There was no time to get back to before.

Dr. James Black, a physician who works in Emergency Medicine at Phoebe was inside his home near Holly Drive in East Albany, an area decimated by an EF-3 tornado on January 22, 2017.

"It was still somewhat daylight when we came outside and you could see the tree line change, and the first thing I did was look at our house and I was like 'Man, there is a tree on top of our house'. Then I took a step back and looked left and right and there was such devastation in the community, it was unreal," remembered Black.

Black quickly went to work, joining others to check on neighbors, then caring for the injured at a gas station off U.S. 19.

After all that, a state trooper took him to the Phoebe EC, where 50 people were treated.

But, don't call him a hero.

"That is way overblown. I did the same thing that anything anyone would have done. If you want to see a hero, look at the police, paramedics, firefighters and first responders" said Black.

Much was done by hundreds of Phoebe employees in the wake of the storms.

An emergency health clinic opened in East Albany.

"My house was literally shaking. It was the longest five minutes of my life," recalled Natasha Hightower.

Hightower's family, along with 19 other employees and their families, found temporary housing at Phoebe North, and meals were provided.

At Phoebe Worth, patient rooms opened for residents without power, hundreds of meals were made.

Many employees volunteered at the Worth County Disaster Command Center, serving thousands of meals and handing out relief supplies.

"We as Phoebe have a responsibility to this community. And, it goes beyond these four walls," Rice commented when asked about the employee's dedication to each other as well as the community at large.

Reaching beyond the walls, the 'Phoebe Family' joined many others, serving where it was needed most.

"There were so people in my neighborhood, from all walks of life, from neighboring counties and communities that came here to help. And, they didn't want anything in return. I think that is a testament to the kind of life we enjoy here in Southwest Georgia, where we are great friends with our neighbors and we are all family," said Dr. Black.

And, Phoebe is taking the lead to help rebuild Tift Park, a historic park located near Phoebe's Main Campus off North Jefferson Street.

Many of the park's famous and historic live oak trees were cracked apart by high winds.

A non-profit created in response to enormous tree destruction across the city, Grow Albany, is raising money to replant Tift Park, Radium Springs and many other natural jewels damaged during the storms.

Grow Albany's next community planting day is February 17, 2018, at Tift Park.

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