Glynn County evacuees from Hurricane Irma can come home Thursday, ending what for some was a long and expensive trip.
Glynn County will open its borders at 8 a.m. Thursday so residents can begin re-entering the county and settling back into their lives.
But that life may be a bit out of the ordinary for a while.
“There will still be multiple issues in Glynn County. When (residents) come back, they won’t be coming back to the community they left. They’ll be coming back to community that’s been hit by a tropical storm, a community hit by a storm surge that’s unprecedented in past decades, maybe even a century,” Ours said.
For starters, a curfew in place since the mandatory evacuation began Friday was extended to 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. today through Saturday.
Emergency officials have three major infrastructure concerns as residents return — sewer availability, functioning traffic lights and electricity.
Brunsick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer director Jimmy Junkin said returning residents is “not ideal,” given the state of the sewer system.
“There are some considerations the public has to have coming back with the state of the infrastructure,” he said.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Monday, roughly 70 percent of all the sewer lift stations in Glynn County were not functioning. Since then, the situation worsened, jumping to about 75 percent at one point Wednesday morning.
That has essentially turned the majority of the sewer system in the county into a septic tank — and it is full, said the utility's public information officer, Jay Sellers.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, 127 of 167 stations were without power, but Junkin said that number would be changing throughout the week as power is restored and JWSC crews are able to begin reactivating them. All three wastewater treatment plants are running on generators.
That is why Sellers said it is critical the water and sewer system is working properly before the tens of thousands of people who heeded the mandatory evacuation return.
“We’re about to have wastewater in the streets,” Sellers said Wednesday at the Emergency Operations Center at the Public Safety Complex on Golden Isles Parkway.
Holding a full bottle of water, he illustrated how pump stations that are full have nowhere to go but out when the pumps start again. If all start running again without the proper repairs, the results could be catastrophic, he said.
The utility has extended a water conservation plan until Friday that asks customers not to shower, to only flush toilets when absolutely necessary and to use sinks sparingly. They are also asked not to run dishwashers or washing machines. These are measures they say may help to prevent a full system from overflowing.
Junkin said residents should avoid making contact with standing or flowing water outside their homes because it may contaminated with sewage. Some sewage overflows have already been reported by utility crews and Junkin said crews were “maxed out” Wednesday fixing sewer lift stations and cleaning spills.
Workers will have to be careful how they activate lift stations. Turning them on in the wrong order could create issues further down the line that could be catastrophic, Junkin said.
Irma’s wrath was felt mostly by the sewer and power systems in Glynn County, but only two days after she passed nearly 100 miles west of the Golden Isles, Junkin and Georgia Power area manager Paulo Albuquerque signed off on allowing residents come home, despite the large amount of work still needing to be done.
“The county would not have made this decision without the support of Georgia Power and the JWSC,” said Glynn County manager Alan Ours.
The water and sewer system is only part of the problem, he said.
Nearly all of the more than 40,000 Georgia power customers Glynn and McIntosh counties were without power after the storm Monday. Since then, the utility had restored power to around 17,000 of 47,000 residents in Glynn and McIntosh counties, roughly 36 percent. Crews will be working through the night, and Albuquerque said they expect to have 90 to 95 percent restored by Friday.
Electricity is needed not only to run lift stations, but also to operate traffic lights. Georgia Power crews were out in force Wednesday working to restore traffic lights to working order.
Glynn County Commission Chairman Bill Brunson described the situation as fragile on Wednesday.
Too many people driving without traffic lights will take valuable law enforcement resources away from patrol for traffic duty, he said. Too many people flushing toilets will make sewer lines and lift stations overflow.
“Once that pipe fills up, it’s going somewhere,” Brunson said.
Then there is the flood damage. Irma brought a record storm surge to the Golden Isles and caused significantly more damage than Matthew a year ago, officials said. Standing water is still in many coastal, waterfront and low-lying areas on both the mainland and St. Simons Island. The major impacts were countywide.
Glynn County Emergency Management Agency director Jay Wiggins said emergency shelters are already being coordinated in county for when people return to find their homes unlivable. So far the only shelter confirmed will be at Selden Park, but others are likely to be named later.
Then there is the wildlife, Wiggins said. Alligators, water moccasins, birds and other wildlife are displaced because of the storm surge and may be in unexpected places.
He stressed that residents will be returning to business as usual.
“We want people to come home and be in their homes, but it’s not gong to be normal operation. You’re not going to walk into your home and have the air conditioning running,” Wiggins said.