As Hurricane Matthew was barreling in on Georgia, the state’s emergency response team was dealing with its own behind-the-scenes storm.
Hundreds of documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an Open Records Act request show a frenzy of activity as state officials prepared to move inmates, ready road-clearing equipment and evacuate hundreds of thousands of people from the Category 2 storm.
Staffers were besieged with last-minute advice from other emergency experts, complaints from the media and heartwarming stories from those rescued from the storm’s fury. Unsubstantiated rumors — including an erroneous report of eight dead homeless people — mixed in with the official reports.
And shortly after the storm raked Georgia, leaving four dead and tens of millions of dollars in damage in its wake, there was apparent turmoil among the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s top staff.
Clint Perkins, GEMA’s state operations center director, emailed the staff his thanks days after the storm passed in what appeared to be a farewell note. A GEMA spokeswoman said Wednesday that Perkins is still employed, and he and the agency declined to comment further.
And Jim Butterworth, tapped by Gov. Nathan Deal about two years ago to head the agency, sent word shortly after the storm that he was leaving for a private-sector job. Deal’s top aide said it was a long-planned departure that the governor was briefed on in September.
The documents provide a glimpse into the state’s response to the deadly storm, among the fiercest to hit Georgia in decades. And it was the most pointed test yet of Deal’s new emergency strategy, honed after the state’s embarrassing flub of the 2014 ice storm that paralyzed metro Atlanta.
For Deal, who said Wednesday that Georgia’s response to the storm was “exceptional,” it was proof the state can handle large-scale emergencies.
“That’s not to say we didn’t have problems,” he said, noting the four deaths from falling trees. “But we tried to give as much warning to encourage people to evacuate the most prone areas. Overall, we had great cooperation from the residents of those areas.”
‘Please be patient’
As the hurricane rumbled up the Atlantic coast and Deal ordered residents in six southeast counties to evacuate, state officials traded emails with details on federal disaster declarations and tips to prepare for the aftermath of the storm.
A torrent of reports came in regularly detailing requests for assistance, the latest road situations, power outages and medical emergencies. Counties kept the state updated with hour-by-hour assessments on flooding. And there was a surge of last-minute expenses for radios, water purifiers and other equipment.
By Saturday morning, as it became clear Georgia dodged the worst of the damage, Butterworth cautioned against declaring the coast clear. He emailed Deal spokesman Jen Talaber Ryan with some messaging advice: “THIS RECOVERY WILL TAKE TIME,” he wrote. “At this point, we don’t even know how long. Please be patient.”
The most heated response came from residents in evacuated areas who were uncertain when they could return home. Deal, who visited Brunswick for a press conference after the storm passed, faced hostility from some residents who tried to return home but were turned away by state troopers.
Deal blamed the “confusion” on a failure of communication between emergency responders and transportation officials who had not finished their inspection of bridges and roads possibly damaged by the storm. “That was the reason for not opening it up earlier,” he said at a press conference.
A by-the-book response
There was more minor pushback, such as when the governor praised the coverage of Savannah TV station WTOC at a press conference, seemingly at the expense of rival stations and the local newspaper. A former Georgia House staffer wrote Ryan making sure she knew of the omission.
“I am sure this was an honest oversight,” Kristy Lindstrom wrote, “but I just wanted to bring it to your attention since it takes the coverage and cooperation of all news outlets to alert the public.”
A day after the storm hit, Butterworth reported that the state’s new strategy — which embraces a better-safe-than-sorry policy — helped calibrate Georgia’s response.
“Just wanted you all to know that we’re running our response and recovery ‘playbook’ and we’re exactly on the timeline,” Butterworth wrote to top Deal aides, adding: “As a side note – this plan didn’t exist in Georgia 1 year ago. I’m incredibly proud of our team.”
Sprinkled among the dry reports and streaming statistics was a tear-jerking story of an evacuated couple with two premature baby boys, born just before the storm struck, in desperate need of help.
The family found a hotel in Savannah with power that could operate the medical equipment the babies needed to survive, but they couldn’t get there due to road closures and storm damage. A Department of Natural Resources ranger escorted them to safety.
“Babies have been fed and are finally full and sleeping!! Mama and Daddy are doing the same,” reported the officer, who attached a picture of the smiling family.
Nothing that can’t be ‘undone’
The storm seems to have heightened internal friction between top brass at the emergency agency, which was the butt of national jokes after the 2014 ice storm that transformed a dusting of wintry weather into an embarrassing disaster.
In a late-night email to top GEMA deputies on Oct. 8, after the brunt of the storm passed Georgia, Butterworth hinted at the tension.
“I know today was a long day but God is always good and this is proof yet again. Ending on an up note,” Butterworth wrote. “I appreciate each of you and please know that, from my perspective, nothing has been done that can’t be undone.”
GEMA spokeswoman Catherine Howden said Butterworth was reacting to the “long hours everyone was putting in to help the citizens of Georgia.”
Perkins, who has worked with GEMA for about a decade, wrote what seemed to be a congratulatory note mixed with a goodbye message to staffers the Wednesday after the storm passed.
“The kind support so many of you have provided me the last few days has been overwhelming,” Perkins wrote in the Oct. 12 note. “I told my wife I never realized how many friends I had. … As usual she laughed and said I should listen to her more often.”
Reached on his cellphone, Perkins said, “I don’t think it will be appropriate for me to have any comment on that right now.” Howden said he was not terminated or suspended during the storm.
Days later, Deal’s office announced that Butterworth was leaving for a job with Delta Air Lines after about two years on the job. Top Deal aide Chris Riley said Butterworth told the governor in late September about his decision to leave.
In his Oct. 17 note to staff, Butterworth wrote that he had mixed feelings wrestling with his impending departure as Hurricane Matthew neared.
“As I begin my transition back to the private sector,” he wrote, “rest assured that I will remain committed to our team’s absolute success in the Matthew recovery effort.”