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Agencies participate in disaster response exercise
EmergencyManagement Drill17

Lt. Ben Finley traced a map of the tornado’s path with the back of his pen, outlining the areas in Forsyth County with the most destruction.

A larger map of the Cumming Aquatic Center — one of the Forsyth County Emergency Management Agency’s (EMA) commodity distribution points — spread across his desk at Forsyth’s Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, which is located in the basement of the county’s public safety complex on Settingdown Road.

“You can see where we’d have our stations set up and we’d have a message board on Ga. 400 directing people northbound, because this area is right outside the tornado,” Finley said. “We’re just west of the city here, so if we’re set up on Pilgrim Mill [Road], we could direct people who may be in the affected area to just go up a short distance.”

Though no real tornados were in sight Thursday morning, various local governmental and non-governmental agencies gathered in the county’s emergency operations bunker, discussing plans for their national disaster response.

“If something happened, we have a place to land helicopters and whatnot, so we have a resource-intensive place here,” Finley said.

The simulation was part of a statewide exercise held by the Georgia Department of Defense and the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, or GEMA.

“Right now, we do have the EOC active and the Red Cross is setting up a shelter,” said Chris Grimes, deputy director of Forsyth’s EMA. “We’re just going through and seeing what the shelter looks like, and the [National] Guard is setting up for our commodity distribution point.”

The exercise, called Vigilant Guard, included practice commodity distribution, with volunteers driving through checkpoints at the Aquatic Center to receive water and emergency information.

Forsyth was one of 31 counties in Georgia to participate in the simulation, which tests the state’s local and state emergency response.

“In this event, it’s a hurricane that hit the coast of Georgia,” Grimes said. “It came in and then turned north and has impacted [everywhere] from southern to northern Georgia. Our scenario locally is a tornado that’s spun off as part of the hurricane, which is a very real threat when you have hurricanes, especially when you’re on the right side of a hurricane, which we are.

“This is a very real thing we could see, especially if a hurricane came [onshore] strong. This one — Hurricane Allen is what we’re calling it statewide — came onshore as a Category 3, which is a major hurricane.”

Though state and local agencies can do little to prevent natural disasters, exercises such as Thursday’s show how well they can recover from one and what can be improved.

Participating agencies included the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, the local Red Cross chapter, Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services, or DFCS, the Georgia National Guard, GEMA and others.

“When we can take an event and simulate things, it allows us to be prepared if we ever have to do this,” Grimes said. “We most recently opened a shelter after the ice storm happened a couple of years ago. We had a lot of power outages in Forsyth County, and that’s the last time we opened the shelter.

“It just allows us to make sure we know the process, that we practice the process.”

Mike Riemann, the Red Cross’ northeast Georgia disaster program manager, said the exercise also allows agencies to interact with one another face to face.

“If we set up a shelter, it’s in concert with local authorities, so they know what we’re doing and we know what they’re doing,” he said. “Preparation is everything. We have agreements ahead of time with various organizations, and we worked effectively in the recent Savannah evacuations.

“It’s about getting to know one another and work effectively.”