Orange Beach uses past lessons, teamwork in storm aftermath

By Melanie LeCroy   
Posted 10/14/20

Orange Beach City Administrator Ken Grimes sits at his desk just days after Hurricane Sally blew through town. Wet carpet has been torn up and removed in his office and in much of the building. …

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Orange Beach uses past lessons, teamwork in storm aftermath

Crews at the POD loading a trailer with pallets of ice, boxes of bleach and gallons of gasoline to transport to Bear Point.
Crews at the POD loading a trailer with pallets of ice, boxes of bleach and gallons of gasoline to transport to Bear Point.
Melanie LeCroy/Staff Photo
Posted

Orange Beach City Administrator Ken Grimes sits at his desk just days after Hurricane Sally blew through town. Wet carpet has been torn up and removed in his office and in much of the building. Drywall is missing on the lower half of the wall in several offices. Not many buildings in this city were spared damage. Department heads are meeting in the conference room preparing for Mayor Tony Kennon to arrive for a status update before his nightly Facebook live update.

Grimes arrived in Orange Beach in 2001 from the Birmingham area. Shortly after, he dealt with the Shrimp Festival cancellation due to straight line winds. Next up was Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Katrina, the oil spill, various storms and COVID-19. Most of the department heads that Grimes manages were also here for those difficult times.

“Once you have gone through it you know the good, bad and the ugly. You know the process; you know how the people react. Because we have all gone through it and have a great mature developed team, it really helps the City of Orange Beach see the reaction of that result and now the citizens are going “this is day five.”

Grimes lists his veteran team: Police Chief Steve Brown 26 years, Tim Tucker and Kit Alexander 16 years, Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Smith 24 years, Phillip West 18 years, Wade Stevens over 20 years, Jeff Hartley who runs the sewer plant 25 years.

“When you build our core team of people it’s strong and we know what to do. It is not braggadocios. We are blessed with this group of people,” Grimes said.

In five to 10 years this group of leaders will be eligible to retire but Grimes has a plan. Smart hiring and succession planning will ensure the level of teamwork and experience continues.

This team has been running full steam since Sally approached the shore. Years of tabletop planning and relationships made over the years combined with past experiences put this team’s game plan into actions. Convoy of Hope arrived with supplies just as the storm passed bringing the first load of needed supplies. Crowder Gulf had all roads cleared by the end of day three giving people the ability to get to their homes or get out to pick up supplies. Having the roads cleared also allowed groups of volunteers to arrive and start tarping roofs and cutting up trees for residents. Removal of vegetation and debris began on day five.  

The restoration of power to nearly 80% of homes by day five after Hurricane Sally is a direct result of lessons learned and investments made after Ivan. A new substation was installed to allow for redundant power and a better grid system.

“The new substation behind the police station and directly across from the library has an underground bore under Wolf Bay that comes out the other side, above ground. That is a new transmission line that brings power. A lot of our residential base is serviced out of that substation. We have another substation on Beach highway across from Phoenix West 2 on Powerline Road. When you look at those substations and how they service, that’s lessons learned. That is a new one since Ivan,” Grimes said.

The City of Orange Beach does not always play by the rule book. They pride themselves on taking care of their own. This was prominent throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when Kennon encouraged seniors and people of ill health to call the city and get on the Widow and Orphan list. City employees, fire and police checked in on the folks on that list and brought them what they needed. During cold weather someone swings by to check to make sure their pipes will not freeze and when summer arrives they make sure their air conditioning works. After Hurricane Sally, everyone on the list was checked in on. If they could not be reached by phone someone went by to check in.

Chris Litton, logistics coordinator, got a call that no one had been able to reach Mike O’Rourke. Litton stopped by O’Rourke’s residence to find him safe and with all the supplies he needed. His one request was to let Kennon know the sound quality was bad and he was not speaking loud enough during his Facebook Live updates.

“A man needed oxygen and had no power, so we took him a generator and fuel. People say you should not do that, but it is what we do. These are our people,” Grimes said.

Kennon set a goal of being back to normal in 30 days and the team has been working nonstop to reach that goal. Over 297,500 cubic yards of debris (equivalent to roughly 13,500 dump truck loads) has been removed since Sunday, Sept. 20. Of the total, 17,000 cubic yards is marine debris, 19,500 cubic yards is debris from the Backcountry Trail, and 1,150 cubic yards is white goods debris (appliances, etc.). 

The city is also already looking into lessons learned with Hurricane Sally. During the open questions portion of the Oct. 6 City Council meeting a resident voiced concern over the road to their neighborhood being prone to flooding making it hard to leave during storms. Community development director, Kit Alexander, said that she was already working on looking for grants and solutions.

“There’s an attitude. There is no playbook or big book of rules. Everything goes out the window when a storm hits. You do whatever you have to do to make it happen. We will worry about the rules later. Just get it done today. We are different, we have attitude and we have grit,” Kennon said. “I have a staff that just handles it. I get out of the way and in spite of me, they just get it done,” Kennon continues.

The can-do attitude and grit of Orange Beach residents and staff has made the recovery the quickest in their history. Neighbors helping neighbors clean up and supporting each other. In the early days after Hurricane Sally, Bear Point Civic Association set up their own point of distribution. Most of the homes and cars in the area were flooded making it hard to get to the Point of Distribution (POD) at Island Church. At the association’s building neighbors pooled extra supplies, homeowners from out of town loaded their vehicles with bleach, food and ice on their way to Orange Beach.

Litton stopped by to see what the city could do to help. There was a need for hot meals, ice and cleaning supplies. Within two hours, crews at the POD were loading a trailer with pallets of ice, boxes of bleach and gallons of gasoline and the Salvation Army food truck set up in the parking lot providing hot meals.

“Be strong Orange Beach, life is better here.” That is how Grimes ended the Infoline recording Sept. 19 and it represents everything about Orange Beach.