ALBANY — Pastor Bobby D. Paul Jr. didn’t have a lot to give to Hurricane Michael evacuees, but he shared what he had Wednesday morning as the storm tore toward southwest Georgia.
His church, Family Worship Center in Albany, had taken in about 30 people around 10 a.m. There were no cots or stockpiles of bottled water, just a couple jars of peanut butter, a loaf of bread and a roof that might be better than some of the houses and mobile homes in the area, which weren’t built to withstand a storm as strong as Michael, which was expected to soon hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 4 storm.
It is expected to weaken by the time it reaches Albany, roughly 120 miles from the Gulf Coast, but Dougherty County officials said they are preparing for it to be a Category 1 or 2 hurricane.
“We’ve done everything we can to communicate to citizens that they (should be) in homes with strong foundational structures,” county commission chair Chris Cohilas said, “but the reality is, this is an area where the homes haven’t been built with a hurricane in mind.”
At Paul’s church, which has room for about 200 people, kids played with plastic toys on the carpet and families sat upright on their air mattresses. The pastor fielded calls in his office, surrounded by family photos and his hunting gear.
“Something had to be done,” Paul said.
Chris and Shannon Gilmore were glad he did.
They came to the shelter with their service dog, 2.5-year-old rat terrier Jewel. They were told it was the only pet-friendly shelter in Albany.
The trio live in a 14- by 15-foot camper parked at a trailer park in the city. They were worried about all the big trees around them and the heavy winds.
“I didn’t want to go to sleep in Albany and wake up in Oz,” the 45-year-old man said.
But he said he might not have left home if not for his new bride, who moved here a year ago from the Tennessee Valley. The husband made sure to take their IDs, blankets, coffee for his wife and food for Jewel.
Meantime, about 15 miles from the Florida line, Decatur County’s fire and rescue department was preparing for the potentially historic storm — and, to a certain extent, resigning to fact that a community rarely in the path of hurricanes can only be so ready.
“The last time this area took a direct hit from a hurricane –and that hurricane wasn’t even this strong – was Hurricane Kate back in 1985,” said Brad Brooks, an engineer with the department. “This one is still strengthening.”
That storm tore the roof off the Pizza Hut in Tallahassee as it made way into Georgia, battering Bainbridge, the Decatur County seat, and Thomasville. It devastated Georgia crops, left thousands without power, stranded residents on impassable roads and burned terrifying images into the minds of locals.
Brooks said he fears a repeat – only worse.
As far as he could tell, few people had left town and were staying in their homes, since the American Red Cross told officials there wasn’t a building strong enough in the whole county to meet shelter standards.
Once the winds hit 40 mph, as they almost certainly will, even fire firefighters will have to take shelter and won’t be able to respond to calls, lest the trucks get blown off the roads.
“A lot of folks are anxious, they’re nervous,” he said. “A storm like this is unpredictable.”
At a Category 4, Michael will be the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle since reliable record-keeping began, according to Channel 2 Action News.
University of Georgia professor Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society, said Michael will be “life-altering” and “deadly” in Georgia.
“I still do not get the sense that people in Georgia in places like Bainbridge, Albany, Columbus, Macon, Augusta, Savannah, Perry, Thomasville, Dublin know what they are about to get,” he said Wednesday in a Facebook post. “Impacts will be wide-ranging.”
The Doughterty commission chair was awestruck that the county is facing this storm while it still hasn’t recovered from tornadoes that hit in January 2017, killing a handful of residents in an area east of Albany with large clusters of trailers and homes. The trailer parks have mostly been torn down, but many mobile homes remain in the community, as well as modular homes.
Dougherty County residents also remember the horror of 1994’s Tropical Storm Alberto, which flooded the Flint River, killed 31 people in Georgia, including several around Albany, and unearthed hundreds of caskets, sending them floating away.
The key differences between that storm and Michael are strength and speed. Weaker Alberto lingered over Georgia for days, while potentially stronger Michael is moving more quickly. But Cohilas said the community is preparing for an 8- to 12-hour assault from a storm projected to bring pounding winds on a town that just wasn’t built for that.
The area could be without power for days or weeks, he said.
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