City, county survive through teamwork

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 14, 2004

While most Butler countians stayed undercover during the onslaught of Hurricane Ivan, the men and women who make sure the community remains safe stayed on the job.

Many residents may not realize that their homes and lives remained protected under city and county authorities’ watchful eye before the storm’s arrival, at the storm’s peak and in the immediate hours following it.


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Butler County E911 director Janice Stamps credits the good working relationship all the agencies had in the days leading up to the storm and the days after the storm.

The folks at E911 remained on the job throughout the storm in their concrete building on South Conecuh Street, for as she put it, they couldn’t shut down and go home.

&uot;We survived,&uot; she said shaking her head in a recent interview. &uot;There were four of us that came in on Wednesday, Sept. 14, and we stayed until Saturday.

We slept on cots and on the conference room floor in rotating shifts.&uot;

Those who stayed included Stamps, Sharon Robinson, Christee Johnson and Jennifer Powell.

Stamps said by doing this, they were able to keep the system online and answer the call many calls that came in during the storm’s swatch through the area.

She said they knew it would be a storm for the county’s record books.

&uot;We knew the hurricane would be severe,&uot; she said.

&uot;Although we knew that, we also knew that E911 had to be manned.&uot;

She said the workload during the storm helped the four inside the tiny building stay focused, even as things were being blown to bits around them.

&uot;If I had been at home, I would have probably been terrified,&uot; she said.

&uot;But because of the calls, we really didn’t have time to get scared.&uot;

Stamps added another important thing that the dispatchers knew were that local police, deputies, firemen and other city personnel were out in the maddening storm.

&uot;Two Greenville police officers, deputies and the Greenville EMS stayed on the streets the entire time,&uot; she said.

&uot;We had to stay connected so that we could communicate and send them to where they were needed most.&uot;

She described how the dispatchers could hear the winds howling around the building and on occasion, the sound of something hitting the building.

&uot;During the storm, something would hit the building and one of use would ask, ‘Did you hear that?’ and then we went right back to work,&uot; she said.

The four women who stayed on the job at E911 have families of their own, and Stamps said they made provisions for them and then went to their job.

&uot;My mother lives with me,&uot; she said.

&uot;My sister lives on Country Club Drive and she went to my house to stay with our mother.

Two trees ended up falling on her house.

If they had been at home, someone could have been seriously hurt.&uot;

Their family situations didn’t deter them though, because of the job they do.

&uot;We made arrangements for our families and then we went to work,&uot; she said.

&uot;We made the arrangements because we weren’t sure we could make it back in to the office.&uot;

She pointed out that after the storm, Greenville itself was a bit isolated from the outside world because of downed trees on the major thoroughfares including Ala. Highway 10, U.S. Highway 31 and I-65.

She also said they had no major 911 emergency calls.

&uot;We did have one heart attack during the storm out in Forest Home,&uot; she said.

&uot;Members of the Providence Fire Department cut the trees blocking the roads so that GEMS ambulance would get in there.&uot;

Stamps credits the advance work various agencies did in the fact that no loss of life was recorded.

&uot;We truly were lucky&uot; she said.

&uot;I think all the agencies worked extremely well together and we did what we knew we had to do. We worked together to make it through it.&uot;

She said another serious call the dispatchers dealt with were very scared people who were calling about trees falling on their homes.

&uot;We were powerless to get immediate help to them,&uot; she said.

&uot;We would tell them to get to a safe area of their home and then as soon as we could, we’d dispatched help to get them out of there.&uot;

While many did prepare for the worst case scenario, she said she still thinks many were caught off guard.

&uot;The saddest thing is that many people didn’t take it seriously,&uot; she said.

&uot;So many didn’t believe it could be severe and at the height of the storm, we had people calling 911 wanting the fire department to relocate them.

At that point, there was no way we could get people safely to shelters.&uot;

After the storm passed, she said. they continued to man the phones and as city services went out into the streets full force, the dispatchers still didn’t know the true extent of the storm.

&uot;I didn’t realize it was as severe as it was,&uot; she said.

&uot;I looked out the front door and I could see that South Conecuh wasn’t blocked near us.

It was only later that I learned that it was blocked on both sides out of the view.&uot;

She said when she finally did leave, many trees had been cut and most streets were passable.

&uot;I was in shock,&uot; she said. &uot;I couldn’t believe that this could happen here.

It was Saturday before we could get out of here. I couldn’t believe the destruction this city had endured.&uot;

In the end, she again credited the agencies for being prepared.

&uot;There were enough warnings that everyone at the official level were prepared,&uot; she said.

&uot;I think that helped us a great deal.&uot;

Greenville Police Department

One of the agencies that E911 dispatched was the Greenville Police Department.

Chief Lonzo Ingram said his officers remained on the streets as long as they could safely be there but most had to take cover from the storm’s fury.

&uot;Of course, we were on duty around the clock,&uot; he said. &uot;During the storm, our personnel remained on patrol but at the most severe point in the storm, that was the point when they took cover.&uot;

He pointed out like Stamps that two officers did remain out on the streets throughout the storm.

&uot;They tried to oversee the city as best as they could,&uot; he said.

&uot;They had the option to take cover when they thought it was necessary and needed to do so.&uot;

Ingram said before the storm was finished, officers were back in full force assessing damage around the city and also searching for potential fatalities.

&uot;During the storm our people got out there and stuck with it,&uot; he said.

&uot;They were responding to the alarms sounding around town.

We had lots of alarms going off which happens in a natural event like this.

However, you never know when it is the weather or when someone has chosen to use the storm as cover.

Officers did an excellent job responding to those types of calls.&uot;

He said they knew immediately how bad it was in the city.

&uot;We realized it was bad as it was when the wind quick blowing,&uot; he said.

&uot;Any time you have major streets blocked, houses destroyed and roofs off building laying the streets, you know pretty quickly that it was very bad.

In the hardest hit places, it was a while before we realized that no one was seriously injured or killed.

You go into search mode.&uot;

Ingram said his department worked some long hours.

Instead of the regular eight-hour shift, they switched to 12-hour shifts and suspended off days.

Those extra hours and people were needed after the storm, especially at the Interstate exits.

&uot;The greatest contribution my people made were aiding those who were returning to the southern part of the state,&uot; he said.

&uot;They were the ones who were trying to stop here in town and buy gas and other supplies.

Our people got out there and helped them get into town and then back on the interstate.

They just did an outstanding job. Anybody who saw the traffic in the days following the hurricane out on the interstate knows how bad it was there.&uot;

Ingram said the extra hours also meant many officers were remained away from their families, but it is understood that is part of the job.

&uot;With the emergency services, you understand you have to leave your home and your families and protect the public,&uot; he said.

&uot;After the storm, civilians were able to get out and assess the damage at their homes and make repairs or temporary ones. Police and firemen can’t do that.

We have to try to see about our property and our homes after everything calms down.&uot;

Ingram who also served the city as chief during Opal didn’t hesitate when he was asked to compare the two storms.

&uot;Opal was a thunderstorm compared to Ivan,&uot; he said.

Butler County Sheriff Department

Butler County Sheriff Diane Harris had all her employees on duty leading up to, during and after the storm.

&uot;Everybody I have on staff were on duty,&uot; she said.

&uot;We worked around the clock to try to insure the safety of the elderly people who were bedridden.

We tried to make sure the roads stayed clear, and had one deputy become trapped.&uot;

She said the deputy had a tree fall just in front of his cruiser and as he tried to back up another tree fell behind him.

&uot;Trees were falling all around him and us,&uot; she said.

&uot;He stayed on the job 24 hours because he couldn’t get out and go anywhere.

Finally a very helpful citizen came with a chainsaw and cut him out and they basically cut his way back to I-65.

Once he got back to Greenville, he headed to the north end of the county.&uot;

Harris said this storm does not compare with Opal in any way.

&uot;We did not have this type of damage during Opal,&uot; she said.

&uot;We had traffic and minor problems, but this was devastating for Butler County.&uot;

The sheriff said she simply doesn’t like talking about Ivan’s wrath and the fact that he came back around a second time was more than enough Ivan.

&uot;I imagine there were more people praying during this hurricane than ever thought about praying,&uot; she said.

&uot;Even the hardest of hearts were seeking out God because of the storm’s force.&uot;

She said the jail fared well despite losing power; life inside simply went back to when there were no lights or running water inside. However, prisoners remained safe and orderly.

&uot;We had a plan in place that if the building was damaged in some way, I told the jailers that if it looked the it was going to blow the building over, put everyone in the basement,&uot; she said.

&uot;I also made arrangements to move them elsewhere if I had to.

There was just a lot of tension at the jail with everyone having to be closed up so tightly.&uot;

She said the hardest part was the lack of communication with the jail during the storm.

&uot;We had no communications other than dropping by and checking on things,&uot; she said.

She praised the utilities in the county for getting everyone back online so quickly and she also praised emergency personnel from both the city and county.

&uot;During Hurricane Ivan, emergency personnel, law enforcement of all aspects, the fire departments, ambulance crews, simply everyone same together as a team,&uot; she said. &uot;There was no cross time and it looked like the world had found a new beginning.&uot;

She said all were nice and pleasant although under a great deal of stress with many working while being concerned for their own families.

&uot;My hats are off to everyone who assisted in this because we could not have done it by ourselves,&uot; she said. &uot;I believe the next time we will be better prepared.&uot;

The Greenville Fire Department and Greenville Public Works Department will be featured in an upcoming story about their important roles during Hurricane Ivan.