SAVANNAH — Phillip Webber was in charge of deploying buses to transport more than 3,200 people fleeing the Savannah area when coastal Georgia evacuated before a near-miss with Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

This year, Chatham County’s emergency management director has made sure he’ll be able to evacuate more than double that many people by bus during the hurricane season that begins June 1. Other coastal counties are following suit.

Chalk it up to a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina, in which thousands were stranded in New Orleans without cars or other means to flee the city ahead of the storm.

“Our elected officials were looking at us saying, ‘That’s unacceptable. We can’t let that happen here,”’ Webber said Wednesday as the Governor’s Emergency Management Conference opened in Savannah.

Emergency officials in coastal Georgia counties say having enough public transit and school buses available for hurricane evacuations has been a priority for the upcoming season.

Chatham County will have at least 200 buses on standby this year, up from 87 used during Floyd seven years ago — the last time evacuations were ordered along Georgia’s 100-mile coastline.

Coastal Liberty County will have 25 or more school buses ready for emergency transportation, up from three buses used to evacuate 50 residents in 1999, said Tom Burriss, the county emergency management director.

Glynn County is using radio and newspaper ads to get word out to residents of nine locations where they could catch evacuation buses in the Brunswick and St. Simons Island areas.

Richard Strickland, Glynn County’s emergency management director, said he expects few residents will stay if an evacuation is ordered this year.

“For at least a few years, people will remember Katrina before they become complacent again,” Strickland said. “When the state and local officials tell them to evacuate, they’ll get out.”

Charley English, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said other changes have been made to the state’s hurricane response plan after the record-breaking 2005 hurricane season.

State and local officials have designated more sites near the coast to be used as distribution centers for necessities such as food, water and ice. GEMA has also picked a site closer to the coast to stage crews for restoring communication lines and electricity as soon as a storm passes.

“Any time you have a Katrina, you have a lot more interest and get a lot more people to the table,” said English, who told the 1,000 conference attendees Wednesday “we need to be prepared better than ever.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue used the conference to announce he had appointed English as the new permanent GEMA director. He had filled the position as acting director since February.

Perdue also announced he had picked Maj. Gen. William T. Nesbitt, commander of the Georgia Army National Guard, to be Georgia’s new homeland security director. Nesbitt commanded a security task force of 7,000 military personnel when President Bush held the 2004 G-8 summit in coastal Georgia.

“These men are no strangers to instant response,” Perdue said.

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On the Net:

Georgia Emergency Management Agency

http://www.gema.state.ga.us

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