Remember the past, preparing for future

Published 6:18 pm Thursday, September 17, 2009

N.C. Division of Emergency Management

Three days before it made landfall, Hurricane Floyd strengthened to a strong Category 4 hurricane with the potential to become a Category 5. State and local emergency management officials urged coastal residents to evacuate inland, then positioned resources to immediately respond to the storm and prepared for the worst.
By the time Floyd reached Wilmington on Sept. 16, 1999, it had been downgraded to a Category 2 storm.
“For a brief time, emergency-management staff and first responders thought we had been spared the widespread destruction we feared just a few days before,” said Doug Hoell, state emergency-management director.
But the hurricane moved slowly and dumped 10 to 24 inches of rain east of Interstate 95. The relentless rain saturated an area that already had been soaked by 8 to 10 inches of rain from Hurricane Dennis just two weeks earlier.
Unprecedented devastation
The rains from Floyd produced the worst flooding in the history of North Carolina, with waters extending well into the 500-year flood plain. Fifty-two people lost their lives to the storm; more than half from attempting to drive on flooded roads. Flooding on the Tar, Neuse, Lumber, Cape Fear and Roanoke rivers disrupted communication, utilities and transportation in the eastern half of the state. Dozens of water and wastewater plants were disabled, 40 dams breached and more than 2,800 private wells were affected. Power was knocked out to 1.2 million homes and businesses; 65,000 customers lost telephone service. Every element of the transportation grid was impacted: maritime facilities were damaged and ferry services shut down; all 23 airports east of I-95 were damaged and many remained closed for weeks; 1,500 roads were closed with 2,100 damaged sites requiring repair before reopening.
The storm prompted the largest evacuation in United States history at that time as more than 3 million residents and vacationers rushed inland. At the peak of the emergency, 227 public shelters were open in North Carolina, housing an estimated 62,000 people.
Commerce and agriculture were devastated. Approximately 30 downtown areas were completely submerged. The U.S. Economic Development Administration reported that 60,000 businesses sustained physical damage exceeding $1 billion and lost $4 billion in revenues. More than 32,000 farmers absorbed $812 million in damages to crops, livestock and farm structures.
Floyd’s effect on housing in eastern North Carolina was catastrophic. More than 67,000 homes were damaged; 17,000 of which were declared uninhabitable. The subsequent housing shortage necessitated the largest temporary housing initiative in this country’s history at that time. More than 2,500 mobile homes and travel trailers were purchased and set up on public and private sites to accommodate the population rendered homeless by the flood.
In the days and weeks following the hurricane, local, state and federal agencies worked to restore order and security to North Carolinians. The state recorded more than 1,500 official rescues by search-and-rescue groups and more than 1,000 swift-water evacuations. An amalgam of local and state animal-care organizations worked with countless volunteers to save endangered pets and livestock from rising floodwaters contaminated by gasoline, raw sewage, pesticides, agricultural waste products and dead farm animals.
Though they had dealt with massive storms before, not even emergency-management staff had envisioned the chaos, destruction and overwhelming demand for resources that they experienced following Floyd. The coordinated response was tremendous — and unprecedented.
But the storm also revealed several areas in which disaster response and mitigation needed to be improved. Skill levels, capabilities and equipment for search-and-rescue teams varied widely making it difficult to know which teams to send where. Many pet owners were reluctant to evacuate for fear they would lose their furry or feathered friends to the storm. Farmers lost millions of livestock including chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle in the floodwaters because there was no coordinated emergency responses plan for farm animals. Floodplain maps proved to be outdated after thousands of homes and businesses flooded during and after the storm.  
“Hurricane Floyd tested emergency management staff at the local, state and federal levels in ways we never had been before,” Hoell said. “The storm also left us determined to improve North Carolina’s system for preparing for, responding to and mitigating damage from natural disasters.”
Providing reliable assistance
Following Floyd, the N.C. Division of Emergency Management worked with local communities and counties to develop a new way to do business during disasters. The goal was to provide consistent training and equipment so that rescue teams could aid neighboring jurisdictions during a crisis regardless of the conditions or terrain. 
Several North Carolina counties and regions had search-and-rescue capabilities prior to 1999, but there was little coordination among the different teams and training standards and equipment varied from region to region. Since then, NCEM has worked to increase the search-and-rescue training standards and develop local resources to meet statewide needs so that teams could move around the state to assist other areas.
Teams are comprised mostly of local volunteer firefighters, law-enforcement officials or emergency medical technicians from the local rescue squad. To qualify as one of the state-approved search-and-rescue teams, the members must complete additional training in advanced swift-water rescue techniques. In the past eight years, the state has received nearly $9 million to buy equipment and train first responders on search-and-rescue missions.
Today, 37 local agencies have swift-water rescue teams trained and equipped to respond to victims caught in rising floodwaters or fast moving streams. Eleven search-and-rescue teams have been certified to rescue or recover victims from any type of structural collapse. Separate Helo Aquatic Rescue Teams combine emergency management and N.C. National Guard forces (including a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter) to rescue lost persons in extreme wilderness areas or from flooded areas.
The training developed and equipment accrued in the past decade helped ensure that first-responder organizations will operate effectively and efficiently even under the worst conditions. Each of the teams has been trained using national standards and best practices, which also makes them a valuable resource to other states during times of crisis. 
In addition, North Carolina developed State Medical Assistance Teams so that the state could sustain medical response locally while awaiting federal assistance. The teams consist of eight hospital-based, 50-bed field hospital units and 39 county-based decontamination units. The units can be scaled up or down and configured to meet a variety of needs up to a 400-bed hospital. The mobile hospitals have their own water, sinks, showers and sanitary facilities, as well as heating and air conditioning. Funding for the $4 million equipment was provided through the federal departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. Medical personnel from hospitals across the state provide staffing for the teams, which were deployed in 2008 to help treat flood victims in Indiana.
But the mobile hospitals are not the only medical asset the state has for responding to crisis. Public Health Regional Surveillance Teams work in the impacted region following a disaster to assess health needs and determine the scope of disease outbreaks. Seven teams are strategically positioned near major urban areas to work closely with local health departments and first responders to provide coordinated scientific, medical, technical and epidemiological expertise during times of crisis. Begun in 2002, the Public Health Regional Surveillance Teams were used to assess health needs of flood victims in Iowa last year and, most recently, to track and respond to outbreaks of the 2009 H1N1 flu.
Both programs are partnerships between the state departments of Crime Control and Public Safety and Health and Human Services.
National Guard troops and equipment are often some of the first resources sent in response to a disaster. A few years ago, the N.C. National Guard began grouping together typical commodities and the necessary staff to support them to fulfill customary resource requests. The combined equipment, staff and estimated cost is referred to as a force package. For example, if a county requests a generator, the NCNG may send a power generation-force package that includes a generator, cargo truck (to transport it) and a generator specialist to operate it (and repair, if needed) and who has a cell phone in case county staff or others need to contact him. The North Carolina force-package concept has been adopted and implemented as a national model for deploying and tracking resources.
Protecting animals
Many pet owners and farmers refused to evacuate as Hurricane Floyd approached North Carolina because they did not want to leave their animals. At that time, pets were not permitted in shelters or most hotels, so owners had to choose between finding animal-friendly accommodations or ignoring evacuation orders. Millions of domestic and farm animals were lost to the storm, though many could have been saved by a coordinated emergency response plan.
As a result, State Animal Response Teams and County Animal Response Teams were formed as a coordinated effort between local and state governments and animal organizations. Teams are organized under local and state emergency management and include personnel from animal control, N.C. Cooperative Extension agencies, sheriff’s offices, veterinarians, N.C. Forest Service offices and other concerned citizens. Their goal is rescue, respond to and recover animals during emergencies.
In addition, each county now has designated pet-friendly shelters that allow evacuees and their small domestic animals to be co-located at the same facility. More than two dozen Companion Animal Mobile Equipment Trailers are positioned across the state to quickly establish pet shelters during emergencies.
Each trailer contains basic supplies and equipment such as crates and first-aid kits; owners are expected to bring their pet’s food, vaccination records, leash and other basic supplies. Although the co-located shelters are intended as a last resort, they provide an invaluable resource for individuals who have nowhere else to take their pets. The CAMET program is a partnership between the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, State Animal Response Teams and N.C. Emergency Management.
Future disasters
The 1999 hurricanes highlighted North Carolina’s vulnerability to natural disasters and the need for accurate, up-to-date floodplain maps. In September 2000, the state of North Carolina began a unique partnership with FEMA, assigning to NCEM the primary responsibility for creating and maintaining Flood Insurance Rate Maps for the state. Implementing the program was a first step for FEMA and the state.
“Historically, floodplain maps were surveyed and maintained by FEMA,” N.C. Crime Control and Public Safety Secretary Reuben Young said. “Floyd proved how valuable those maps could be and how vital it was to keep them updated. Accurate floodplain data provides a blueprint to guide future growth and prevent further development in vulnerable areas. Ultimately, it reduces our risks and our costs in future disasters.”
During the past nine years, the Floodplain Mapping Program, now a part of NCEM, collected detailed statewide elevation data and conducted engineering studies of 28,778 miles of streams and coastlines, more than half of which had no previous base flood level data. The counties now have digital flood plain maps; providing more accurate data to city planners for future development and to homeowners for insurance purposes. The program has become a national model for other states.
In addition, North Carolina’s efforts in hazard-risk identification will serve as a platform for the next phase of map modernization. Floodplain data will serve as the foundation as the division inventories other types of hazards and risks, mapping the elevation and footprints of buildings, dams and other critical structures statewide to scientifically determine each facility’s risk from various natural disasters. Because of its commitment to floodplain mapping, North Carolina has received more than $70 million from FEMA to update the flood maps. In addition, the state received $10 million in federal funds to map all types of hazard risks and study the potential impacts of long-term sea level rise in eastern North Carolina.
The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program reduces future impacts of natural hazards by purchasing flood-damaged property and converting it to open space. In the past decade, the program has purchased more than 7,000 structures on flood-prone property, restricting the parcels to open space in perpetuity. An additional 800 flood-prone structures have been elevated above their base flood elevation. The N.C. General Assembly approved in 2005 the first-ever state-funded recovery program to aid victims of hurricanes Frances and Ivan. This funding ensures that communities are able to break the cycle of disaster damage, reconstruction and repeated damage and ultimately helps create sustainable communities.
“We have no idea when the next major disaster will strike North Carolina or what its impact will be on our people and our state,” Young said. “But we do know that we are better prepared today because of the lessons we learned a decade ago.”
Julia Jarema is a public information officer with the N.C. Division of Emergency Management.