Responding to Tropical Storm Irma on Sept. 11 and 12 left local cities with significant bills and such suggestions as better real-time power outage information, according to early government reports.

In Dunwoody, Irma cleanup cost the Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments alone an estimated $20,000 to $30,000, according to the city. In Sandy Springs, a rough estimate from City Manager John McDonough was that storm response cost the city “six figures plus.”
Atlanta and Brookhaven did not have cost estimates available yet.

Two trees fell during Tropical Storm Irma on Montavallo Drive in Sandy Springs. (City of Sandy Springs)

“The city is currently reviewing costs associated with Hurricane Irma and will undergo a cost-reconciliation process,” said city of Atlanta spokesperson Jewanna Gaither. “We predict to have figures in the next few weeks.”

Among Reporter Newspapers communities, Sandy Springs had the most detailed report available, as McDonough briefed the City Council on Sept. 19.
The storm “reminds us, it humbles us, about the power of nature,” McDonough said.

McDonough said the city began outlining emergency response plans even before Irma approached the U.S. mainland as a historically powerful Category 5 hurricane. Sandy Springs initially was watching Hurricane Harvey as it devastated Houston, Texas, with flooding. Among the local planning was monitoring the Lake Forrest Dam, a troubled structure under Lake Forrest Drive on the Atlanta-Sandy Springs border, on Sept. 1. Both city governments and a group of private residences are working on a plan to repair or replace that aging dam, which the state fears could collapse and flood in a major storm.

As Irma approached, Sandy Springs’ first concern was the large number of evacuees heading to metro Atlanta, where they filled up hotels.

Then Irma finally arrived here as a tropical storm. Sandy Springs got its first call about a fallen tree at 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, McDonough said. By the storm’s end, about 45 roads had been closed by fallen trees or electric lines, and a local resident was killed when a tree fell on his house — one of three people the storm killed in Georgia.

Sandy Springs Police officers knocked on doors of homes near Nancy Creek to alert residents about possible flooding, and city officials checked on conditions at assisted living facilities after hearing what McDonough called “horror stories” of seniors dying in Florida blackouts.

Irma affected the city’s Call Center, which handles any type of city services request. Providing through an outsourcing contract, the Call Center service is based in Orlando, Fla., and had to evacuate for the storm. Backup service was provided from a Virginia office, McDonough said. Officials say the Call Center handled 1,930 calls during and immediately after Irma, but received only one complaint for poor response.

McDonough said Sandy Springs had generally good communications with other governments and such private agencies as Georgia Power Co. While generally pleased with the storm response, McDonough had one recommendation: Better real-time information from Georgia Power on where its crews were working.

As an example, McDonough said he had a tree removal crew on standby and had to send them home because he could not tell whether Georgia Power was working on fallen lines in the same area. Such information also could allow cities to use their own crews to do some basic electrical repairs, he suggested.

“Let’s be transparent about those things for all of our communities,” he said.

Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft said that the company does it best to provide real-time information, including outage maps, to customers and that it had good communications with local governments about storm preparation. However, he said that the sort of specific information that Sandy Springs suggested is not likely to be available.

“We are sensitive to the needs of Sandy Springs regarding issues such as road closures and tree removal, but we must focus our resources on safely restoring power to the most customers in the shortest time possible,” Kraft said. “For major events such as hurricanes and ice storms, it would greatly hinder restoration to try to report and coordinate every repair and crew location with every city we serve.”

Sandy Springs also quickly reviewed city streets for “dangerous” trees that will be proactively “eliminated” so they don’t eventually fall onto power lines or structures, McDonough said. He estimated the list, which was not immediately available, at about 100 trees. City spokesperson Dan Coffer later said it is about 50 to 60 trees.

All local cities activated their versions of an emergency response headquarters, where staff worked around the clock to monitor conditions and supervise response.

For Brookhaven, it was the city’s first use of the “Emergency Operations Center,” and officials deemed it a success— especially because the government itself fell victim to a power outage.

“We had most of our staff in 24-hour mode, either at work or on-call, throughout the duration of this event,” said Mayor John Ernst in a written statement. “The EOC was able to function and succeed even though City Hall was in a blackout like most of the rest of the city.”

–Evelyn Andrews and Dyana Bagby contributed

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.