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Storm command center kept county running
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Two weeks after a Jan. 28 winter storm that brought traffic to a standstill in Metro Atlanta, dubbed snowjam, and doused Newton County in snow, another one came through north central Georgia , this time being labeled "catastrophic" by the National Weather Service.

The first -round of wintry weather gave Newton County officials a chance to come together and provide an efficient way to keep their community safe and functioning. All the county and city’s resources, such as such as the sheriff’s office, police department and utilities, gathered in one central location as 2-3 inches of snow fell on the area, enabling quicker reaction times. It was the first time county Chairman Keith Ellis approached a storm in this fashion.

When natural disasters strike, the state has the lead, followed by support services, putting Newton County Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien in charge of Newton’s emergency command center.

The storm proved a safe one for area residents, and Ellis decided this central command approach was the way to go. "It was amazing to watch that command center with all the entities there," Ellis said.

Roughly two weeks later the emergency management center was back in use.

Before the second storm came through Tuesday evening, Ellis and O’Brien gathered all services once again in an emergency management center, located at Newton County Fire Department headquarters on U.S. Highway 278, to dispatch orders and organize information as it came in.

"When the National Weather Service had their updates, we had a full house of people attending those meetings and working out game plans," Ellis said. "If anything happened from a tree limb falling, that command center would find the appropriate one to go out.

"We were really a well-oiled machine, (even) while we were sleepy and fatigued."

Between Tuesday and Thursday nights, Covington-Newton County 911 and the emergency management center received 649 calls related to the weather – 461 to 911 and 585 to non-emergency lines. Among those calls, 20 were accidents, including three with injuries, 32 burglar alarms, 26 citizen assists, 53 public works calls, five residential structure fires, and three natural gas leaks.

Those calls required personnel to be at work, sometimes in overtime situations, to be equipped and to be fed. With the center at the fire department headquarters, a full kitchen was available. But when that wasn’t accessible, the county had a tab open at Waffle House, which supplied food for county employees.

"We had a running tab for workers to be able to go in whenever," Ellis said.

The county also incurred extra cost as a fire truck flipped over due to the ice.

To subsidize the cost of the winter storm, along with insurance for the fire truck, Ellis is also looking for help from FEMA and/or the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

"We have materials cost, overtime for workers, fuel involved and a myriad of things people don’t recognize are involved with one hours work needed to get things done," Ellis said.

Newton County is able to apply for funds through government agencies after being placed on a list of counties named to a state of emergency. Newton wasn’t in the first round of 40 counties named to the list, but it was placed on the next list released, after a call from Ellis to Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s offices.

"If that did it, great," Ellis said. "But the next day we were on that list."

In 2009, Newton County suffered damage in the flood that swept through the area and was able to repair some of the damage thanks to some emergency funds. Newton County wants to be in a similar economic place this time around.

"We want to make sure the citizens are refunded," Ellis said. "This is costing the citizens ultimately."

All the county entities will gather Monday to determine the total cost from the storm to be submitted for state and federal funds (the request will only be submitted if it’s high enough to meet FEMA/GEMA’s requirements). From there it could be two weeks until Newton receives funds