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I-TEAM: Evacuees may not be able to flee to Augusta this hurricane season

Published: Apr. 13, 2021 at 6:04 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Out of town guests are a welcome sight after the pandemic put a pause on events last year.

The Masters, Iron Man Triathlon, and Arts in the Heart typically draw big crowds and big bucks to Augusta.

But visitors forced here by weather events are another story. Thousands of evacuees flood into Augusta during hurricane season. But as our I-Team explains, it’s at an increasing cost to the community.

Hurricane season is just two months away. The cities of Augusta and Savannah have held an emergency and disaster mutual agreement for over a decade, meaning if a hurricane hits Savannah they send their people here and we care for them until it’s safe to go home.

The cost of that care has added up over the last ten years so much so the Richmond County Sheriff says his office can no longer partner with Savannah.

In a recent letter, Sheriff Richard Roundtree writes Interim Emergency Manager Mia Lucas, “The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office cannot continue to support Savannah-Chatham hurricane evacuation memorandum for its citizens from Savannah to Augusta.”

1,300 evacuated from Hurricane Dorian to Augusta in 2019.

In 2017, 3,000 from came to avoid Hurricane Irma.

And in 2016, 2,500 came to evacuate from Matthew.

Richmond County spent a little more than $400,000 dollars caring for evacuees during Irma. It’s costly regardless of future reimbursements.

And a lot of the evacuees coming here are your more medical fragile community in general.

Steven Vincent is the chief operating officer for Gold Cross. Gold Cross is the ambulance provider for Richmond County’s 9-1-1 service.

“Georgia Emergency Management does not reimburse Gold Cross for services provided to evacuees. They’re coming on a bus, but they may not have insurance or adequate resources for housing or medication,” he said.

Most are poor, and many are sick.

“I would say the majority of our calls the last time evacuees came here were for diabetics. A lot of people don’t have medication, as they forgot it, or they didn’t have enough for the last hurricane,” Vincent said.

And it’s not just physical, but more psychiatric and mental cases as well brought here.

A follow-up report on Hurricane Irma highlights a dire need:

  • Dialysis appointments were delayed or missed.
  • Public health had limited support.
  • Mental health services were not initially available at the shelter.

“So, how does that impact you guys financially?” I asked.

“We take a pretty large financial hit with that usually. We can’t bill for many of the patients we transport usually they are indigent or do not have insurance or any way to pay their bill, and we have to write those bills off,” Vincent said. “We usually lose out over a $100,000.”

News 12 reached out to Chatham County Emergency Services in Savannah about the changes. We received this response:

“CEMA Director Dennis Jones is aware of the letter from Sheriff Roundtree to Ms. Lucas and thanks the sheriff’s office for their support for the past 10 years. Director Jones is continuing to work with Augusta-Richmond County to explore other avenues of support during a hurricane evacuation.”

As for Sheriff Roundtree, his letter to Savannah leaders also states, “We stridently believe in assisting our sister cities…. But feel that it is time for other cities to share the burden…”

“I think at the end of the day, no matter who you are, you want to be able to help your fellow man. And you never want to see someone in need not be able to get help and for us, we are always going to provide that help no matter what,” Vincent said.

So, what’s next? The sheriff stated in his letter he couldn’t be part of the agreement under the current guidelines. Of course, guidelines can be changed.

The sheriff said he would give Chatham County time to make adjustments before pulling out altogether.

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