Hurricane Floyd: Many lessons learned|Better prepared for future storms

Published 6:16 pm Thursday, September 17, 2009

Staff Writer

Thanks, in part, to lessons learned during and after Hurricane Floyd, Beaufort County is better prepared for a natural disaster than it was in 1999, according to John Pack, county emergency-management coordinator. But, he said, there’s still work to be done.
A new county Emergency Operations Center, used for the first time during last year’s hurricane season, enables emergency-management officials and various others involved in hurricane preparedness and recovery — including law-enforcement and fire officials, utilities workers, the American Red Cross and school representatives, among others — to be housed under one roof, in a permanent setting, during disasters.
Set up at a cost of about $10,000 with mostly volunteer labor and used furniture gleaned from other county offices, the center also includes the latest in electronic technology that allows Pack and other local disaster workers at the center to communicate with state Division of Emergency Management offices via the Internet in real time and monitor state responses to their requests.
The center also houses an alternate 911 call center that would allow all disaster-related calls to be transferred to the center when it is in operation.
An adjacent room provides space for elected officials and news media to monitor emergency-management activities and communicate with local residents.
“This was all a product of Floyd,” Pack said, referring to the control panels, monitors, radios and desks assembled around the room in the emergency-management headquarters on Highland Drive in Washington.
Before the center opened, emergency operations centers were housed in whatever space was available in county buildings that had emergency generators.
Providing a permanent home for such a center gives local officials and volunteer agencies a space to better train to handle disasters, Pack said.
The building, as it now stands, probably will withstand a hurricane of up to a Category 3 intensity, he said. To strengthen it further, Pack hopes to be able to replace its wooden, flat roof in the near future.
The Emergency Operations Center is just the most visible of emergency-management preparation and response resources in Beaufort County that have improved since Hurricane Floyd.
“Before Floyd, North Carolina had never faced a major urban flood,” Pack said. “Since then, we have known that we have to prepare for something as bad as Floyd.”
Since Floyd, Beaufort County has improved much of the equipment needed to respond to disasters. Using funds provided by the Department of Homeland Security, the county now owns an alternate command center that can be taken to another part of the county so emergency managers can work there, if needed. The county also owns an emergency generator that can be used at a shelter or other building that needs it following a storm. The county has purchased surplus military equipment that would allow emergency managers to travel through high water, Pack said.
Also since Floyd, substantial strides have been made in disaster planning and in cooperation among coastal and state agencies that respond to disasters.
While coastal North Carolina had hurricane-evacuation routes and a general outline of an evacuation plan before Floyd, it did not have a comprehensive coastal evacuation plan. Today, that plan now includes detailed information such as the time it takes to evacuate specific cities and counties. And funding is in place to update that plan regularly.
Emergency managers also have detailed, standardized checklists to help them prepare for an advancing storm and better coordinate activities after a storm passes, Pack said.
“We have strong mutual aide agreements now with the other counties in our area which, before Floyd, were hit or miss,” Pack said.
And, since Floyd, people in Beaufort County have become more aware of the need to prepare for hurricanes and other disasters.
Pack said he has helped several local churches and homeowners associations develop disaster plans and telephone trees to help their members prepare. And emergency planners are helping re-establish a local volunteer ham-radio network that could aid in communications if telephone systems fail during a storm.
But despite improvements, Pack said, people in Beaufort County need to remain vigilant and develop their own hurricane and disaster-preparedness plans because, in the event of a major hurricane, electricity could be off for days in some areas of the county, water and sewer services could be affected and food supplies could be cut off.
He hopes that attention to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Floyd will spur people to prepare.
“In Beaufort County, we’ve been spoiled in recent years. That’s the biggest thing we have to fight,” he said. “There are a significant number of people living here now who have never been through a major hurricane.
“We are better prepared than we were before Floyd, but we’ll never be prepared for the big one.”