Before Hurricane Michael breezed through town almost a year ago, several years had passed since Houston County suffered a blow from a major hurricane, but officials credit other significant storms with preparing local governments Michael’s destructive visit.
“In 2014, we had the ice storm. In 2015, we had the 15-minute hurricane (straight-line winds),” said Billy Mayes, Dothan Utilities director. “In 2016, we had tornadoes.”
With that much real-world experience, officials believe cleanup and recovery progressed fairly well overall – though the sheer volume of debris provided hefty challenges, Houston County chief engineer Barkley Kirkland noted. Each major weather event offers opportunities to improve response, though, and Hurricane Michael proved no exception.
It also provided insight into how officials can do even better when the next disaster strikes.
“We can always learn from these things,” said Charles Metzger, Dothan Public Works director.
Improving the processes
Hurricane Michael packed Category 3 winds as its eye clipped the southeastern edge of Houston County on the way to southern Georgia. That left Dothan on the western – and weaker – side of the storm, but areas of the city still experienced hurricane-force gusts.
As a result, about 24,000 Dothan Utilities customers lost power from the storm.
City leaders spent time crafting a hurricane plan and reviewing it repeatedly, Mayes said.
“We live and breathe it. We prepare constantly for these storms,” he said.
Part of the playbook includes arranging mutual-aid agreements with other utility groups, and they played a vital role in power restoration in Dothan. Within five days, four different utilities groups helped DU crews restore power to all but 500 municipal customers.
One of the things that strengthened Dothan’s response to Hurricane Michael was great coordination between DU crews and the city’s Public Works department. If roads aren’t cleared, electrical crews cannot access the downed lines and broken utility poles they need to fix.
“These are the things that we learned in previous events,” Mayes said.
Some aspects of the process proved to be new, Metzger said. For the first time, public works crews coordinated their response with the visiting utility crews that assisted in recovery.
“That was unique,” Metzger said, noting the other utilities officials were impressed by Dothan’s internal response. “The compliments were made by the other utility groups that that’s the big problem in their towns: that there’s no communication with our own departments.”
Additionally the storm allowed emergency officials to really test the new joint emergency operations center that opened in 2017, said Mark Culver, Houston County Commission chairman.
Coupled with the refinement of some of the response process, the center allowed for a smoother and quicker recovery, he noted.
“It’s what organizations to bring in to have as part of the process,” Culver said. “I remember in the past, we’d all be running over each other trying to help. We’ve got a good setup with the operations center, (Wiregrass) 2-1-1 and the other groups. (The center) was invaluable.”
Dothan Mayor Mark Saliba believes city employees handled the short-term response to Michael well, but sees opportunities to improve long-term response and even storm preparations.
Saliba remains vigilant about infrastructure challenges since Dothan serves as a major travel hub for the tri-state area. Evacuations from Michael – and from Irma in 2017 – clogged area roadways.
“Florida has been four-laning (highways) 77, 79, and 331, and you sort of hit a bottleneck coming into Alabama,” he said. “We (local, state, and Florida transportation officials) have been having conversations on how to fix that.”
Some short-term remedies include the installation of more overhead message boards signs along highways in the area, Saliba said. Those signs could inform evacuees of hotel availability in the Dothan area as well as the travel time to some of the larger cities in the region – information that could mitigate some of the traffic struggles.
Saliba also believes shelter options could improve locally.
Hurricane Michael and the related power outages highlighted the need for more battery backups to stoplights at Dothan’s major intersections, Metzger said. Currently the city has installed about 32 of them and aims to get to about 90 eventually. Backups are added at a current rate of about six per year.
“We continue to install those at all major intersections. That has come in handy in many events,” he said.
Mayes said his department plans to eventually roll out a software program that makes it easier for crews to report equipment and material needs from the field, which will speed up response.
Culver said county officials identified a couple of ways to shore up some processes as it relates to Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declarations.
“We always learn from these events, and we’ll be better prepared (next time),” he said.