As Irma approaches, Georgia’s new emergency team prepares

Gov. Nathan Deal’s overhauled storm response strategy — and his new head of the state’s emergency management agency — face what could be their most significant weather-related challenge yet as Hurricane Irma barrels toward the Atlantic coast.

The Category 5 storm, with lashing winds topping 185 miles an hour, is one of the most powerful Atlantic storms ever recorded, and it’s projected to rake Georgia’s coast early next week.

It will be the biggest weather threat since Homer Bryson, a former corrections commissioner, was tapped to lead the state’s emergency management agency shortly after Hurricane Matthew battered Georgia in October. And it will test Deal’s weather response plan — and his better-safe-than-sorry mantra — in new ways.

That approach was on display Thursday when the governor ordered the mandatory evacuation of much of coastal Georgia, activated 5,000 members of the Georgia National Guard to help with storm recovery and declared a state of emergency in 30 counties along the hurricane’s path.

“The state is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety ahead of Hurricane Irma,” he said. “I encourage all Georgians in our coastal areas that could be impacted by this storm to evacuate the area as soon as possible.”

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Deal has taken few chances after the poor communication and slow government response to a 2014 ice storm transformed a dusting of wintry weather into an embarrassing debacle for Georgia. Deal and other state officials say they’ve learned from their mistakes.

A weather task force appointed by the governor has led to more equipment and more coordination between state and local officials. And Deal has embraced pre-emptive preparations, declaring emergencies and calling for workers to stay home when severe weather threatens.

That’s what happened when wintry weather walloped Georgia three weeks after that 2014 ice storm, and again in 2015 when a new round of snow threatened metro Atlanta.

And Deal used the same strategy in October to respond to Hurricane Matthew, which killed at least four people in Georgia and caused millions of dollars in damage. Using the word “cautious” several times to describe his approach, the governor urged coastal residents to escape the coming storm and ordered one of the state’s largest evacuations.

The state’s response to that hurricane was largely praised, but behind the scenes at the Georgia Emergency Management Agency an internal storm ratcheted up tensions.

Documents obtained through the Open Records Act showed a frenzy of activity as state officials prepared to move inmates, readied road-clearing equipment and evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from the Category 2 storm. They also showed a dust-up at GEMA’s highest ranks between then-Director Jim Butterworth and Clint Perkins, the head of the agency’s operations center.

According to emails — and what appeared to be a farewell note — Perkins was threatened with being fired in the middle of the response, though he was never terminated. He was later granted a $20,000 salary increase under a Jan. 30 settlement agreement.

Shortly after the storm passed, Butterworth sent word that he was leaving for a private-sector job. Deal’s top aide said it was a long-planned departure and that Butterworth, a former head of the Georgia National Guard, had briefed the governor on his plans in September.

The governor soon turned to Bryson, an even-keeled former parks official who has served more than three decades in state government and prefers to stay out of the spotlight. Among the many challenges on his immediate list: managing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of coastal residents as Irma approaches.

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