MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY, Ga. --
The southwest Georgia area is no stranger to severe weather events, from flooding to severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and even hurricanes.
Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany has, like the community outside its gates, implemented recovery measures as well as pre-emptive practices for minimizing impact to life and operations to the extent possible when disaster strikes.
Steven Dancer, director, Operations and Training Division, MCLB Albany, was serving as emergency manager for the installation when an EF-3 tornado directly struck the industrial sector of the base on Jan. 22, 2017. This was followed by Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018, which came through southwest Georgia as a Category 3 storm.
One of the lessons learned, Dancer said, was to ensure there are hardened shelters for vulnerable populations. This includes the Marine Corps Police Department personnel overseeing operations at MCLB’s entry points, and at the base’s RV park.
At the main gate, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles can be staged from Marine Force Storage Command aboard the base and placed nearby when severe weather is expected.
“The MRAP didn’t move in the tornado,” Dancer said. “We consider them a stable platform.”
Dancer said a driver can be requested for the MRAP so that the vehicle can be moved in the event an emergency response has to be initiated during a weather event.
Residents in the RV park are relocated into MCLB Albany’s transient housing facilities, or inside the installation’s Thomason Gym.
Severe weather events are not kind to mobile home structures, as well the people occupying them. Dancer said this practice was implemented to protect the residents in the park while safeguarding personnel.
“There are a lot of trees in the RV park,” Dancer added. “We don’t want our first responders at risk by a tree falling on them when we could have had people out already.”
In addition, someone from MCLB Albany’s Emergency Operations Center staff is designated to respond in the event something happens on a weekend.
“We have them take home a radio, so if they can’t come in, they can support operations from home,” Dancer said.
The employees who need report to work during a severe weather event are identified beforehand. Depending on the severity of the forecast, the majority of the workforce at MCLB Albany may be released with the exception of essential personnel, Dancer said.
Dancer said the Dougherty County Emergency Operations Center has a MCLB Albany liaison who acts as a connection between the base and the outside community.
“We interact face-to-face in case information needs to be passed either way,” Dancer said. “In the aftermath (of destructive weather), the commanding officer has immediate response authority to provide support to the local government, if they request assistance.”
That was acted upon after the 2017 tornado, when Dougherty County’s equipment could not be brought out to nearby Fleming Road. In that case, a bulldozer aboard the installation was used to clear a path through the debris.
The changes made in emergency management in recent months, Dancer said, has made an impact in responding to such incidents more effectively. They are meant to improve safety, in turn allowing the installation to meet its mission of enabling those who support the warfighter.
“We’ve taken, whether in exercise or real life, and incorporated them into policies to make ourselves better (and improve safety),” he said. “Ultimately, it is to prevent injuries and loss of life.”
“Holistically, this gives us more capability to respond,” Dancer added.
Scott Dismuke, wildlife technician, Environmental Branch, MCLB Albany, said the debris clean-up efforts following Hurricane Michael have been going well.
Dismuke said the hurricane presented a unique challenge in that there was a 10-15 percent tree loss throughout the installation, while the tornado caused a total loss in one location.
Dismuke and Julie Robbins, natural resources manager, MCLB Albany, said debris clean-up is being accompanied by the replanting of trees that is expected to result in more trees planted than were lost. The natural resources staff typically plant pines at a density of 605 trees per acre, and a net gain of trees is anticipated, they said.
Robbins said clean-up will likely take another three months, while it may be May of 2021 before all the forestry clean-up activities, including replanting, are complete. The types of trees being planted, including longleaf pine, cannot be placed in the ground at any time of the year.
“There is a seasonality as to when trees need to be planted,” Robbins pointed out.
Meanwhile, the base’s natural resources staff is working to be proactive by responding to signs of stress in trees. Measures are being taken to prevent future tree loss by secondary morality – specifically from beetles – through the removal of debris, treatment of the trees and prescribed burns.
“It also improves overall aesthetics,” Dismuke said.
Grinding, burning and cutting down damaged trees and removing debris has been taking place over time aboard the installation. With the damage from Michael being widespread, natural resources personnel was deliberate in their approach on what regions to tackle first.
“We focused on the areas of greatest damage,” Robbins said. “We focused on the worse-hit areas, and minimized visible impact.”
“Since January 2017, it has just been a roller coaster,” Robbins added.
The disasters were sort of a blessing in disguise, according to the natural resources manager. Natural resources staff has been able to use this as an opportunity to improve conditions for wildlife. The area where a pecan orchard once stood, prior to its destruction in the tornado, is one space being utilized to improve habitat for a variety of species and provide additional small-game hunting areas. In addition to the longleaf pine, native groundcover is also being established. The groundcover includes grass and flower species native to southwest Georgia and is expected to serve as habitat for many species, including pollinators such as honey bees.
Timber harvests and hardwood orchards are among the other areas where benefits can be seen.
“We are pretty excited about what the future holds for us,” Robbins said. “We will have a lot to show off in the next five years.”
Something else MCLB Albany’s natural resources personnel are looking forward to is catching up on prescribed burning, a regular process on the base that was derailed due to the storms.
“We had been burning off half of our burnable acres annually; we have fallen off of that,” Dismuke said. “Our goal this year is to get back on track.”
Jeanne Geisel, chief engineer, Public Works, MCLB Albany, said the tornado caused damage requiring remediation to 54 buildings aboard the installation. In addition, work continues to recover from the hurricane as well, but more needs to be done.
There were overhead electrical and communications damages caused by the hurricane, officials from MCLB Albany Public Works said. The revamping following Michael is expected to be complete by May of 2021, while the tornado damage repair is on track to end in October of this year.
The damage left by the hurricane, which impacted 88 buildings on the base, includes some areas which had been recently repaired following the tornado.
“The hurricane did damage to roof work on warehouses we completed after the tornado,” Geisel said. “The rest of the tornado work was not affected.”
Geisel said the structural repairs funding for Michael recovery came from Headquarters Marine Corps to the tune of $49 million.
Jon Slichter, deputy public works officer, Public Works, MCLB Albany, said the dollar figure attached to Michael was substantially less than the $110 million stemming from the aftermath of the tornado.
“The tornado caused a lot more damage,” Slichter said.
The damage from the two severe storms were unlike what the base’s Public Works Office had seen on the installation before, although it was comparable to other disasters southwest Georgia has faced.
“It reminded me of the Flood of ’94,” Geisel said. “I was here (in Albany) then; there was billions of dollars of damage. However, I don’t think the flood did that much damage (at MCLB Albany).”
“(The storms) showed our strength and reinforced our relationship with the community,” MCLB Albany Public Works Officer Lt. Cmdr. Aaron Allison said. “It improved our tactics and techniques, which comes back to getting systems online quicker.”
In some cases, repairs brought in some work necessary to get structures up to current-day building code.
“A few of those roofs were at the end of their lifetime anyway,” Slichter said.
While this work progresses, the mission of the base and its tenant commands will continue.
“All missions are currently up and running,” Slichter said.