CAIRO — Cairo Mayor Booker Gainor says Grady County Emergency Management Director Richard Phillips should resign for what he argues was a failure to accept outside assistance in preparation for Hurricane Michael and ineffective communication.
Gainor said Phillips failed to immediately request assistance for the county from the Red Cross, which created an unnecessary burden on Cairo residents to go elsewhere for supplies after the storm.
"(Phillips) failed to communicate and he failed to plan," Gainor said. "And because of that our citizens had to go back and forth between Bainbridge and Thomasville to get resources that were already allocated to us had he requested them."
The Thomasville Times-Enterprise made several attempts to contact Phillips for comment on this story but he could not be reached.
Phillips told the Red Cross that their presence was unneeded in Grady County following the storm and redirected them to areas harder hit by Michael farther west.
Gainor said the Red Cross could have distributed supplies such as ice that could have prevented perishable goods from spoiling.
"The power came back on faster than what we expected," Gainor said. "So if we had the proper ice people could have preserved their food just a little bit longer."
Numerous city and county officials sharply disagreed with Gainor's criticisms of Phillips, saying the EMA director performed well and that the decision to redirect the Red Cross was the right one.
"We had everything under control here," said Grady County Chairman Ray Prince. "The Red Cross agreed, at least the ones I talked to. They said, 'if you need us, just call us and we'll be there, but it sounds like you all have everything under control.'"
Several officials said they were surprised anyone would criticize Phillips at all.
"The chief made a decision and from what I understand it was the right decision," said Grady County Administrator Buddy Johnson. "The mayor may have stepped a little further out than he probably should have."
Gainor said Phillips' decision to redirect the Red Cross was not out of concern for afflicted areas, but motivated by personal animus toward the charity group.
"(Phillips') comment to me was 'I've got a bad taste in my mouth from the Red Cross in the last storm. I'm not going to deal with them. You can,'" Gainor said.
Gainor noted that the county Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) says the Red Cross cannot open shelters unless specifically requested by the EMA.
Cairo Council member Demario Byrden, who agreed with Gainor's criticisms, said he also believed there was a more personal reason behind Phillips' actions.
"Chief (Phillips) said he had a bad experience with the Red Cross before, and that's why he didn't activate them," Byrden said. "I think in a situation where you have a natural disaster all personal feelings should be set aside and you should do what's best for the overall good."
Johnson disagreed, pointing out that the Georgia Emergency Management Agency agreed with Phillips' call.
"I will only stand behind my chief and say that the decisions he made were his to make," Johnson said. "I know (the decision) was backed by GEMA and I know it was backed all the way to Atlanta by the state."
Gainor also said he took issue with the speed and effectiveness of Phillips' communication. The mayor said he sent Phillips a text two days after the storm hit asking if there was any information that should be relayed to residents. Phillips did not respond to Gainor's question.
Prince said communication with Phillips was not an issue for him, but that spotty phone service following the storm naturally presented an issue beyond any one person's control.
"When I called him, if he was on the phone he would call me right back," Prince said. "Most of the time he would stop what he was doing and answer the phone."
Gainor sent another text on Oct. 15 asking Phillips if he would be willing to resign as EMA Director. Phillips did not respond.
But Gainor does not have that kind of authority over Phillips, said Prince.
"The thing is, Richard does not work for the mayor," Prince said. "He answers to our administrator and the county commission."
Cairo Fire Chief Bill Schafer said there were issues with communication in the days following the storm but that "we tried to use every means necessary to communicate with citizens."
Schafer, who worked closely with Phillips during storm recovery, said he was not aware of Gainor's comments but that the EMA director's performance had been "outstanding."
"Given the nature of this storm and the size of it I think (Phillips) did the best job he could do," Schafer said. "I've talked to several other people who agree that he did a dang good job."
The Grady County government created the position of deputy EMA director last week specifically for Schafer given his close working relationship with Phillips in the aftermath of the storm. Phillips said the extent of damage following the hurricane was so overwhelming that he had difficulty keeping up with the steady stream of phone calls he needed to make and receive, necessitating the creation of the deputy position.
Gainor said creating the new position would not have been necessary had Phillips followed the EOP and added that he believed Schafer should be the one in charge.
"(Schafer) gets out on the ground," Gainor said. "He gets out with his guys and he works. If I had to give a recommendation, he would be the EMA Director, period."
Gainor also questioned the timing of Phillips' request for the new position, noting that the director approached the Grady County Commission with the proposal the day after the mayor asked if he would resign.
City Council member Jimmy Douglas disagreed with Gainor's criticisms at Cairo's bimonthly council meeting Monday and suggested a resolution to thank Phillips and his staff for their efforts after the storm.
"I'm sure there could have been some different things (done), but I'm not going to put my self in the position of playing Monday morning quarterback," said Douglas, who was caught off-guard by the mayor's criticisms. "I'm not sitting there 24 hours a day worried about power and everything else. My approach is to stay out of the way and let (EMA) do their job."
Gainor said after the meeting that he would not consent to any council resolution thanking Phillips.
"I'm not going to reward mediocrity," Gainor said. "He failed us. I'm not going to pat him on the back like everybody else."
Several city and county officials said they believed Gainor was going too far in his criticisms and that the situation should not be politicized.
Gainor called for an after-action meeting where storm recovery efforts will be evaluated, adding that he believed local officials were not holding each other accountable for missteps.
"It's a buddy-buddy thing and you're basically just patting your buddy on the back," Gainor said. "Those days are over."
A date for the after action meeting has not been set.