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Why Irma hit Hall County so hard
Drought-weakened trees led to more power outages in county
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A fallen tree pulls up the sidewalk along J Avenue in Chicopee as Monday's storms from what was Hurricane Irma pass through Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Georgia’s yearlong drought is one of the reasons Tropical Storm Irma caused so much damage in North Georgia.

Thousands of trees were blown over in Hall County on Monday and Tuesday, and the cause goes right down to their roots and Hall’s parched 2016.

During droughts, tree roots grow brittle and die as the soil dries, said Shawn Alexander, assistant district manager for the Georgia Forestry Commission in Gainesville.

After the roots fail, the “general strength and health of the tree declines, so it makes them a little weaker than they normally would be,” Alexander said Friday.

The day’s rain Monday before wind speeds picked up that evening made things worse.

Benny Bagwell leads Jackson Electric Membership Corp.’s engineering and operations for the Hall area and has worked for the company for 45 years. He said Thursday that he’s seen many instances when trees will fall over with no wind at all during a heavy rain after a period of drought.

“But you couple that with 45, 55 mph wind gusts and you have a recipe for some real damage,” Bagwell said.”

Hundreds of thousands of people were left without power after Monday and a few thousand still didn’t have it Friday. Most were restored by Saturday.

The highest wind speed recorded in Hall was 51 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Between noon on Monday and 8 a.m. Wednesday, Hall County’s 911 system and administrative office received more than 3,000 phone calls, according to Emergency Management Agency Director David Kimbrell. That’s more than twice the usual number for the period.

“About 80 percent of the roads in the county had some type of effect — a tree limb, tree, power line or some kind of effect — of the storm,” Kimbrell told the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday.

In Hall, the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irma is reminiscent of the 2015 ice storm. That storm cut power to almost the entire county while nighttime temperatures plunged into the teens and single digits from Feb. 16-20. In Jackson EMC’s 10-county system, 128,638 customers were affected.

Pine trees were a particular problem two years ago, Alexander said, as ice built up on the needles and toppled the trees. Hardwoods had lost their leaves by the time the storm struck, leaving them better able to handle the ice and wind.

The storm broke 182 power poles in the 10 counties and caused millions of dollars in property damage.

Damage from Tropical Storm Irma is rivaling that 2015 ice storm.

Now, the county is once again one of the hardest hit in North Georgia and the state. Bagwell said what he’s seeing this week is “very similar to the amount of damage” caused in 2015, though the ice storm remains the worst he’s seen.

So far, 82 poles have been found broken in Hall and Lumpkin counties alone. It takes Jackson EMC an average four hours to replace a pole, meaning getting to those 82 poles had taken 328 working hours — or more than 13 days’ worth.

The 2015 storm cost Hall County government more than $790,000 in cleanup costs.

While much of the rest of the state came back online this week after power was cut by the storm, Gainesville and Hall County have lingered in darkness as trees and downed lines still tangle driveways, roads and sidewalks.

In nearby Gwinnett County, which has five times the Hall population, 18,610 Jackson EMC customers were without power Tuesday morning after Irma cleared the state. Hall County had 20,929 customers out.

By the end of the day Tuesday, the number of Gwinnett customers affected was down to 2,644. Hall County still had 11,122 out. By the end of Thursday, 16 customers remained out in Gwinnett and 3,125 remained out in Hall.

Much the same goes for Georgia Power, which has most of its Hall customers in the city of Gainesville. Georgia Power had more than 4,500 Hall customers down at 9 a.m. Friday while only 577 were out in Gwinnett.

People in trouble spots around the county and in Gainesville were hearing from the two power companies that their service wouldn’t be restored until Sunday.

Why is that?

Power providers have regional mutual aid agreements with providers around the country. When a disaster strikes in one area — an earthquake in California or a tornado in Oklahoma — the logistics for how crews in neighboring states will assist have already been sorted out.

With Hurricane Harvey swamping the Texas coast and Irma working her way up Florida before hitting Hall County, Jackson EMC and Georgia Power had to wait their turn before they could get mutual aid.

“The difference in the 2015: There were projections and we were able to get resources in here faster,” Bagwell said last week. “With Texas and Florida getting the resources up front ... we’re slowly getting them in. We’re here in the third day of it now and we’re still getting new resources. That’s been the real thing that has made this (response) go a little bit longer.”

A fresh crew from Chattanooga, Tennessee, arrived in Hall on Thursday morning. Linemen from the Midwest and from Douglasville have been in the area for a couple of days.

Power companies target high-value areas for restoration first, places like hospitals and sewer treatment facilities where a power failure could be catastrophic. They also target high-population areas first to get the largest number of people back online as quickly as possible.

But Hall County outages have lasted longer than Gwinnett and other counties not just because of population, but because of Hall’s layout.

Hall has thousands of miles of road surface and widespread rural areas mixed with densely populated areas. The result being a large number of people living on a large number of roads covered by a large number of vulnerable trees.

“On a roadside, they don’t have a really even root system,” Alexander said. “In a forest, they’ll be supported and the roots can grow across the ground and other roots from other trees are kind of intermingled.”

Without other trees to support them, when a road-adjacent tree begins to tip there’s nothing there to stop it from hitting the road.

Lake Lanier also provided the open space needed for gusts to build up strength. Bagwell said Jackson EMC is seeing extensive tree damage around the lake.

With the drought damage, rain and wind, so many trees fell in the county that crews of linemen are still finding it difficult to get to every outage.

“In 2015, during ice storms naturally we’re impeded from responding by slick roads, ice roads, that type stuff, and regular cars out having automobile accidents blocking roads,” Bagwell said. “With this, the trees were blocking the roads, so we had to work with state and local governments to clear the roads to get in and do our repairs.”

Hall County Public Works and the Emergency Management Agency swept through the county on Thursday and Friday to inventory damage as part of relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Estimates will be completed next week.

The difference in the 2015: There were projections and we were able to get resources in here faster,” Bagwell said last week. “With Texas and Florida getting the resources up front ... we’re slowly getting them in. We’re here in the third day of it now and we’re still getting new resources. That’s been the real thing that has made this (response) go a little bit longer.
Benny Bagwell, Jackson Electric Membership Corp. engineering and operations director for Hall County area
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