When a disaster hits, neighbors turn out to help one another.
That’s what the Whitfield County Emergency Management Agency and its CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) group did last week after a tornado devastated the Sonoraville area in nearby Gordon County.
An EF3 tornado that first hit Adairsville, then pounded its way through Sonoraville around 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30, ended up damaging about 500 structures in Gordon County, including about 100 that were completely destroyed.
“Wednesday night during the response phase, I was contacted by Gordon County EMA and asked if our agency could possibly come assist them in managing the event,” Whitfield County Emergency Services Director Claude Craig said.
Since EMAs around the state frequently lend a helping hand to other EMAs in the aftermath of disasters, Craig headed to Gordon County the next morning at 6 o’clock to meet officials at the Gordon County Emergency Operations Center and discuss ways that the Whitfield County agency could help.
“Gordon County felt like the two major things they needed assistance in was going to be managing volunteers and managing donated goods,” Craig said, “so I made a phone call to Jeff Ownby (deputy director of the EMA) and Amy Cooley (administrative assistant and one of the coordinators for the CERT program). They came down Thursday and started helping set up a donated goods distribution center and a Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) which was located at Sonoraville High School.”
At the VRC, volunteers came to sign up, underwent a safety briefing, and then were sent out in teams with a team leader to help out in various ways.
“The first two days, they weren’t really allowing anybody into the damaged area, formally, because it was so dangerous,” Ownby said. “We spent Thursday and Friday taking information from volunteers and putting it in a database. They were also doing an online registration for volunteers on the Gordon County website.”
By Saturday and Sunday, the effort had progressed to the point where volunteers were being given credentials with name badges and vehicle passes that allowed them to help out with assignments in certain areas.
Ownby says that the VRC registered around 300 people on-site the first two days of the operation and another 200 or 300 online.
“We actually credentialed over 250 volunteer workers Saturday and probably another 150 on Sunday,” he said.
He figures the credentialed volunteers were outnumbered by volunteers just showing up to help by about a 3-to-1 margin.
CERT members from Whitfield County assisted with the recovery effort on Saturday and Sunday, including Dave Senters, who played a key role in setting up the warehouse to store donated items.
“Dave is one of our members who is real easy to work with,” Ownby said. “He’s got a military background, and he’s the kind that you just give him an assignment and he gets it done without a lot of questions. He basically got the warehouse up and running and getting needed goods out to where they needed to be.”
Other CERT volunteers included Christina Byrd, Modesto Nunez, George La Greco, Joe Martin, Miki Parks and Jim Boyd.
“Saturday, we had some of them going out and doing work around the homes of victims,” Ownby said, “helping out with distribution of supplies and anything they happened to need. Then once we got a warehouse secure through the Gordon County EMA and Fire Department, we sent the CERT volunteers over there, and they started receiving donations from the public and sorting them and getting them inventoried and getting us a list of inventory every so many hours — we’ve got so many tarps here, we’ve got so many cases of water here, we’ve got this, we’ve got that, flashlights, batteries, rakes, gloves. They would send that to us by email or text periodically so we kind of knew what was coming in and going out.”
Tuesday, a faith-based group — Adventist Disaster Response Team out of Collegedale, Tenn. — was scheduled to take over operation of the warehouse, and the Samaritan’s Purse group has taken over volunteer management.
Ownby praised the efforts of the Whitfield County CERT members.
“I know Gordon County wouldn’t have any problem thanking them,” he said. “In fact, the deputy director contacted me today wanting some information about Dave Senters. Our CERT guys did a tremendous job; we certainly want to thank them for coming out and fulfilling that need of help.”
Craig also thanked the many Whitfield County residents who contacted EMA wanting to help with the recovery efforts.
“We did kind of a windshield tour on our way out Sunday,” Ownby said, “and there had been a lot of debris at least piled and stacked. We went to one of our PODs (point of distribution) at the Sonoraville recreation center for supplying goods the victims needed and it was a well-oiled machine.”
When a disaster hits, neighbors turn out to help one another.
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