Walker County braces for Irma

Conditions appear to improve, but caution urged

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 9/11/17

After days of worrying about the effects of Hurricane Irma on Florida and the evacuees who eventually made their way to Walker County, local officials started worrying Sunday about its own needs as the hurricane’s path drifted ever so slightly to come up near the county.

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Walker County braces for Irma

Conditions appear to improve, but caution urged

Posted

After days of worrying about the effects of Hurricane Irma on Florida and the evacuees who eventually made their way to Walker County, local officials started worrying Sunday about its own needs as the hurricane’s path drifted ever so slightly to come up near the county.

Weather maps indicated that the remains of the hurricane would come through Birmingham as it headed north. That was still a good sign as the east end of a hurricane is always considered the worst side. Also, television forecasters did not indicate tornadoes would have much chance to develop.

During an early Sunday afternoon press conference with Gov. Kay Ivey and state officials to brief about state preparations for the hurricane, it was noted five Alabama Emergency Management Agency divisions were being activated, including one that was said to cover the Walker and Winston areas. Walker County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Coordinator Regina Myers said that division, based at Bevill State Community College, was formally activated Monday at 7 a.m.

However, she said the county EMA had not activated its emergency operations center as of Monday morning, as the effects of the storm were lessoning. The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm by 7 a.m. Monday.

“The potential for our weather has actually gotten a little bit on the better side,” she said.

The Birmingham office of the National Weather Service (NWS) posted a Jasper forecast on Sunday indicating that tropical force storms were possibly in Jasper by Monday night, although that had been reworded by later in the day to just indicate showers and wind. A Monday morning statement noted a Tropical Storm Warning was in effect for east of U.S. Interstate 65, while a wind advisory was in effect for west of I-65. Winds were expected to be weaker west of I-65, with sustained winds at 20 to 30 mph, gusts of up to 45 mph and rainfall between 1-3 inches.

However, it was noted that for this area, wind speeds and gusts were capable of snapping tree limbs, damaging unsecured smaller outdoor items and possibly producing isolated power outages.

“A wind advisory means that wind gusts of 35 mph are expected. Winds this strong can make driving difficult, especially for high profile vehicles. Use extra caution,” the NWS said in its statement, noting winds would increase after noon.

The more serious tropical storm warning area stretched along the east end of the state.

According to a graphic for Monday and Tuesday on the Birmingham NWS website Monday, a peak wind gust of 48 was predicted for Jasper, with 2 inches of rain forecast. A more detailed forecast on the NWS site Sunday for Jasper showed the city could see as high as 30 mph on Monday, and gusts as high as 45 mph on Monday night — and 50 mph on Tuesday.

However, that forecast was scaled back on Monday morning, with gusts of 35 mph Monday night and the wind at 10 to 20 mph for Tuesday. The earlier graphics still remained up on the site.

Walker County School, the Jasper School System and Sumiton Christian School all announced Sunday they would be closed Monday and Tuesday. Bevill State Community College canceled Monday classes and said it would make a decision later about Tuesday classes.

Community leaders met early Sunday afternoon, with arrangements that First Baptist Church would be set up as a community shelter that would also offer shelter. Various churches were offering to provide meals that week.

Maranatha Baptist Church announced Monday it will provide food and shelter for families in the course of the storm. Donations of blankets, pillows and food donations were requested. One may call 435-5916 and 544-4763 for more information, directions or a ride to the church.

Hotels, motels and campgrounds were packed in the area, with Florida license plates seen across the city, including Walmart. Jasper Mayor David O’Mary agreed Sunday that perhaps a couple of hundred evacuees were probably lodged in Jasper, although no one really knows. One Facebook report from Hamilton on Sunday noted that First Baptist Church of Hamilton served 213 meals for Florida evacuees Sunday, with other reports saying hotels and motels are simularly booked up as they are in Jasper.

Paul Kennedy of the Walker Area Community Foundation said someone noted at the early afternoon meeting Sunday that 72 out of 78 rooms at the Holiday Inn Express were evacuees from the storm. He noted he and his wife drove around town that morning, noting he saw many Florida tags — although he said he also noted many from Missouri, although he did not know a reason why.

Myers said she still cautioned the public to be careful, even with the improving conditions, as gusts of winds can cause trees and power lines to fall. “We’re not anticipating tornado activity or severe storms. It is just the wind gusts and the ground saturation is what we are focusing on,” she said, noting driving could also be difficult.

She also said despite rumors, she has not seen evidence of gas shortages in the county.

As for the evacuees, she said it was hoped that even if they didn’t want to stay at the shelter at First Baptist, they would register anyway for meals so authorities could keep up with who was in town, where they are and what special needs need to be addressed, such as medical concerns. She also noted many do not have much money with them.

“We know we have a lot of families at Clear Creek. We’ve made contact with them and said, ‘Hey, come stay at the shelter. Don’t stay out here in the wind and the rain and the tents.’” The campground is filled, and she said officials were concerned Sunday about how they would deal with future weather.

“Some of the hotels were full and some of the families were being turned away, and they were here with small children. We heard the families were staying in tents at Clear Creek so we all got together and said, ‘We’ve got to figure something out.’ So it went from there. We are blessed to have the people here we have to just jump and run without a second thought.” 

She said if anyone has damages to their personal property to their property, call the EMA office at 384-7233.

Alabama Power Walker County Business Office Manager Britton Lightsey said a storm team is ready in case of damage, although he noted outside resources that can usually be called on are now helping homes in Florida. If not much damage results in this area, teams from this area may soon be redeployed to areas like Georgia, which already had 278,000 customers out as of Monday morning, he said.

O’Mary, who visited evacuees Sunday night at the hotels and the First Baptist shelter, said late Sunday city crews were as ready with equipment and personnel. However, he said the city will be on the good side of the hurricane, which will help.

The mayor said he let the evacuees know if they have special needs to notify police and that the city would match them with support groups. He said he also talked to people coming through to gas up at Love’s on the interstate. He discovered many of the evacuees did not have a financial need but just needed a word of encouragement, noting many had anxiety not knowing how their property or family will be.

O’Mary said he was glad to see the community come together, noting the city has done this before during hurricanes. “This community is always going to extend the hand of servanthood,” he said.

In another development, the Parrish Town Council cancelled it council meeting for Monday due to the weather, rescheduling for Monday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. Also, the East Walker Chamber of Commerce has cancelled its meeting Tuesday due to the weather.