Whether it’s storm surge models or hurricane warnings and watches, distributing information to the public is top priority during hurricanes or tropical storms. Local elected officials, weather service offices, the media, and County Emergency Management offices all play an integral role in keeping the public safe during severe weather. This week, Lee Jenkins examines how county emergency management help keep the public informed before, during and after a storm.
With hurricane season fast approaching, Emergency Management offices across Eastern North Carolina continue to prepare for what experts say could be a particularly active season. Coastal and inland counties alike have begun updating modeling systems, checking equipment, and informing the public.
According to Craven County Emergency Management office director Stanley Kite, ensuring they have top-of-the line computer modeling systems that provide more accurate damage predictions, such as the Hurrivac system, is one priority.
“This modeling is supposed to be able to give us a better timeline of true live data or information from the storm and be able to put that back into a software program that will give us a better indication as to exactly how many residents or how many properties will be affected by storm surge.”
This is especially important, as New Bern’s location between the Neuse and Trent rivers places it under heavy risk for storm surges. But in landlocked Pitt County, director Noel Lee says spreading awareness via the media is one of their main focuses.
“Currently, right now what we’re doing is trying to work through media outlets, different organizations. You know, instructing people that they need to be prepared this season.”
Beaufort County also places a heavy emphasis on spreading awareness, but does so with reading material rather than through the media, explains director John Pack.
“We have been distributing various forms of literature, about 21,000 pieces of literature through the schools, teachers at the school, to the students, and then also through our many senior centers throughout Beaufort County.”
While the means of dissemination may vary, the information is similar. It explains where to purchase and stock disaster prep kits, discusses what insurance may be needed for certain regions, and stresses the importance of planning ahead.
In any case, keeping citizens safe is the ultimate goal says Carteret County’s deputy director Jo Ann Spencer.
“We just need to make sure that they have all the resources they need in order to make it through the season.”
As a hurricane or tropical storm threatens to impact our area, still more preparations must be made. Each management office establishes and staffs an emergency operation center, some with as many as 26 active employees. Each operation centers features a pre-stocked kitchen and sleeping facilities, as the flurry of activity these centers experience can last for several days. Carteret County also takes the time to pre-place aid in the more isolated parts of the county.
“There’s areas that can be isolated because of bridges, because of flooding issues, so we kind of pre-stage resources in those areas in case they are cut off and we can’t get to them until after the storm.”
Craven County, on the other hand, learns as much as it can about the hurricane before it decides on a plan of action, as each hurricane can be vastly different.
“The storm will predict, pretty much, our action plan based on its travel, distance, and time, and expected time of arrival for impactive conditions.”
These variable conditions make it difficult to determine when exactly the emergency operations centers need to be staffed.
Between 12-14 hours before landfall, the offices issue evacuation notices. It’s important to note that while a recommended evacuation is just that, a recommendation, official evacuation notices, are issued by local government officials. Even when notices are issued, the evacuation process is still tedious, primarily due to citizens’ reluctance, as Craven County Emergency Manager Stan Kite explains.
“Typically and historically, it’s been a slow process in the beginning and the average rule of thumb is that citizens like to wait until they think the storm is much closer. It’s really difficult to encourage citizens to evacuate when the sun is still shining. However, to lessen the impact on them as individuals and lessen the impact on the local area, it’d be much better for them to give themselves plenty of time to get out of the area that’s going to be impacted by the storm and not get caught up in heavy, congested, clogged traffic or even deteriorating conditions.”
As the hurricane wreaks havoc on the region, the offices essentially act as a nerve center, monitoring the storm, processing damage reports, and sending out first responders.
“When winds exceed 45 miles per hour sustained, then we stop responding to calls because we are then placing the first responders in grave peril.”
Still, coordinating a response to any immediate threats is the offices’ central duty during the storm, according to Spencer.
“We are a coordinator. We provide resources that are needed throughout the county.”
Once all of the data is gathered about damages, Pitt County’s director Noel Lee says it’s sent to the state and then onto Washington D.C., who determines if the damage is severe enough to warrant a federal declaration.
“What we want to be able to do, immediately after the storm, is to get a damage assessment so we can try to bill the amount of damage to the dollars to make us eligible for a federal declaration, which will allow FEMA to come in and help us.”
Finally, the offices enter into the recovery process, working with state and local agencies to repair the damage as quickly as possible. According to Spencer, FEMA’s service has been invaluable.
“FEMA has been right here, after the fact. I mean, as soon as the storm passes, they had representatives here to assist with damage assessment, to assist with recovery efforts, with temporary housing, things of that nature. We could not have asked for a better response from them.”
Pitt County director Noel Lee says they also rely on volunteer effort.
“You have a lot of different, non-governmental agencies, such as the Baptist Men, some other agencies that may actually go out and help individual citizens. We try to work with them to coordinate that, trying to let them know what are the hardest hit areas.”
Volunteers can hinder the recovery process just as easily as they can help it, according to John Pack, Beaufort County’s director.
“Sometimes immediately following a storm, everybody wants to volunteer and go to a certain part of, say, Beaufort County that was, what they perceive as, impacted the worst. So, you could end up with 200 to 300 volunteers just showing up but no coordination as to what they are going to do.”
So even in the recovery process, the individual county offices continue to work as a coordinating body with neighboring counties to determine how to most effectively use the resources they have at their disposal. I’m Lee Jenkins.