Officials stay wary of hurricanes

Published 6:05 pm Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And another hurricane season down without a major, (knock on wood), hurricane having had Butler County in its crosshairs.

In truth, the county has been fortunate that hurricanes, for the most part, have avoided the United States mainland since 2005, which was the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. That was the year of Katrina and Wilma, a pair of violent hurricanes that have been categorized as the two costliest and most intense storms on record by the National Hurricane Center.

And while it has been five years since Butler County faced the wrath of Hurricane Ivan (2004), local officials insist they are better prepared for the likelihood of such an emergency in the future.

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“We take these storms very, very, very seriously,” said Greenville Mayor Dexter McLendon. “Once you get hammered like we did with Ivan you make changes real quick.”

McLendon admitted hurricanes were one of the least of his concerns prior to Ivan. Hurricanes were a coastal problem and would have little impact on Greenville and Butler County, other than having police on standby to ensure evacuee traffic moved as efficiently as possible up I-65.

Or so he thought.

“Man, I was one of those people that said, ‘Ya’ll don’t need to worry about those things…they’re not coming up here,’” he said. “Well, that morning when I drove out of my driveway, I changed my mind. It changed me.”

When Ivan roared onto shore on Sept. 16 its slow march north and 100 mile per hour winds ravaged south Alabama, scattering trees and power lines across Greenville and Butler County and causing considerable damage to residential areas. Some homes went weeks without power and water.

It was a wake-up call, said McLendon.

Now the city’s emergency plan includes a ready-made shelter in the basement of the Beeland Park Recreation Center for employees and their families. Fire Chief Mike Phillips was instrumental in making that happen, said McLendon.

“Mike said we needed a central location and communications center for the city, because if City Hall had got blown away we’d been in trouble,’” said McLendon.

Phillips said when people think of an emergency, they usually think fire department or police department. But those are not the only city departments involved in case of a major disaster like a hurricane.

“This is city-wide, it takes all of our city departments, especially streets and sanitation because they’re out there trying to clean up and get the streets open,” said Phillips. “Plus we needed a place for city employees to come and bring their families. It’s very difficult to ask someone to leave their family when they don’t know where or when the storm is coming and they have to come in to work. So we tell them to just come here and bring your family. We’re set up where we have a lot space and can feed them to.”

McLendon also credits Butler County EMA Bob Luman for keeping city officials informed on the latest updates with the weather service and projections for any storm once it moves into the Gulf of Mexico.

“I guess Bob gets taken for granted sometime because it hasn’t happened in four or five years now,” said McLendon. “But when it does happen, you want someone in that position. We meet a lot ahead of time. When a storm is coming, Bob will let us know, ‘hey, we need to start taking this serious.’”