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Georgia Rapid Response Team Activates for Hurricane Matthew

March 16, 2017
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Hurricanes are almost always food safety emergencies. Floodwaters contaminate basements, pantries, and warehouses. High winds and debris may damage food manufacturing facilities and grocery stores, which can compromise processes, ingredients, and equipment. When hurricanes hit land, communities may be without power from hours to days. Without proper temperature controls, food quickly enters the “Danger Zone” and become unsafe for consumption.

The destructive path of Hurricane Matthew — which hit the eastern coasts of Florida and Georgia on Oct. 7-8, 2016 — severely affected Georgia retailers’ locations, seafood processors, and food manufacturers. The Georgia Food and Rapid Response Team (GA RRT) anticipated high levels of damage and began making preparations in advance of the forecasted impact.

The Rapid Response Team Takes Action

The GA RRT was on alert for situational awareness on Thursday, Oct. 6, and began monitoring the storm as it impacted Georgia early Friday and into Saturday. Many RRT members had to evacuate themselves. RRT management reported to the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s State Operations Center, where they called more than 1,200 licensed food, feed, and meat facilities to assess damage. The results of those phone calls indicated that emergency response and recovery activities would be necessary.

The RRT formed an Incident Management Team to address the hurricane response and prepare for coastal disaster-area operations to follow. The RRT officially activated with nearly 20 state regulatory personnel put on notice. Personnel held conference calls and meetings over the weekend, on a holiday, and after-hours to accommodate the urgency of the rapidly developing situation.  

The Incident Management Team reported to an Incident Command Post located at the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s (GDA) Atlanta headquarters office. They developed an Incident Action Plan, outlining the objectives and goals of the GA RRT’s initial response efforts.

Once first responders acted to save victims directly after the storm hit, the RRT began sending teams on Tuesday, Oct. 11 to assess food facilities. Local inspectors began operations, followed by RRT backup arriving from other parts of the state. Using an Incident Command Structure, the Operations Section Chief conducted incident briefings and directed boots-on-the ground operations.

Success Amid Natural Disaster

The response successfully evaluated and provided guidance to industry throughout the affected regions using tools and insight from previous responses and drills. By using an Incident Command System to structure the response, the RRT conducted more than 130 facility investigations in just 2 days, and reported findings back to the Incident Command Post for coordination. The findings were processed and submitted to leadership with the Department of Agriculture and at the State Operations Center.

Hurricane Matthew was one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the Georgia coast, but the Georgia Rapid Response Team acted swiftly and decisively to restore Georgian’s lives back to normal.

About the Author

Thomas Burke, born and raised in Kansas, is pursuing his Masters in Public Health at Emory University, with an emphasis in epidemiology. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology from Kansas State University in 2013 and worked previously at Kansas State’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. He interned with the Division of Food Safety at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, 2015-2017.

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