Sixty years ago, the United States was on the verge of entering the conflict in Vietnam. Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio. Godzilla premiered in Tokyo. And North Carolina experienced one of the worst weather-related disasters in its history.
2014 marks the 60th anniversary of Hurricane Hazel, a Category 4 storm at landfall that was one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes to date. It caused 19 deaths, 200 injuries and an estimated $1.2 billion in property damage in North Carolina alone. With wind speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour, storm surge as high as a two-story building and a 2,000 mile path of destruction, Hurricane Hazel ruined or damaged 54,000 homes and structures in the tarheel state.
Yet, Hurricane Hazel was merely the first of many notable storms to wreak havoc on North Carolina’s towns and communities. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo made landfall in Charleston, S.C. as a Category 4 storm that remained powerful even as it traveled inland. By the time it reached Charlotte, it was downgraded to a tropical storm but its destructive winds caused seven deaths and left behind more than $1 billion in damages.
The most infamous storm in recent history was Hurricane Floyd which made landfall at Cape Fear Sept. 16, 1999. The slow-moving storm dumped 7 to 20 inches of rain on much of eastern North Carolina causing more widespread flooding in areas that had received 15 inches of rain from Hurricane Dennis less than two weeks before. In fact, nearly every river basin in the eastern part of the state topped 500-year flood levels because of the back-to-back hurricanes. In all, Hurricane Floyd caused 52 deaths and $5.5 billion in damage destroying 7,000 homes and damaging 56,000 others.
Ten years ago, the back-to-back Hurricanes Frances and Ivan each dropped about 15 inches of rain in the North Carolina mountains. Record amounts of rain caused numerous landslides and toppled trees. Following Hurricane Frances, swift water rescue teams pulled more than 200 residents from flooded vehicles and homes.
“As a state, we have made major strides in the past 15 years in regard to emergency planning and preparedness,” said Mike Sprayberry, state Emergency Management director. “We have cultivated stronger partnerships, developed more comprehensive plans and created preparedness tools like the ReadyNC mobile app to help anyone in North Carolina plan, prepare and stay informed. It’s important to see where we have been to know how far North Carolina’s emergency management program has come.”
Hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides and floods will all continue to impact North Carolina. State and local emergency managers have learned from each event and use those lessons to improve planning and response capabilities. These improvements enhance the state and county’s ability to respond, keeping people safe and saving lives.
Each weather-related and manmade disaster that has impacted the state has garnered improvements to its response strategy. In 1954, when Hurricane Hazel made landfall, there was very little way to know that such a storm was coming, much less coordinate a statewide response effort. Following Hazel, the U.S. Weather Bureau installed a weather radar at Cape Hatteras, and federal funding was allocated for national hurricane research projects.
A statewide Emergency Management division was created in 1977 to quickly coordinate state resources to respond to and recover from any disaster in North Carolina. However, response to Hurricane Fran in 1996, revealed that there was no uniform agreement that enabled North Carolina cities and counties to help one another during and after disasters. With no policies and procedures to address logistics, deployment, compensation and liability issues, intrastate cooperation was limited and inefficient.
The Mutual Aid System was created following Hurricane Fran and remains housed in North Carolina Emergency Management. Participation in the system allows cities and counties to share resources during a disaster and access all of the state’s response capability without incurring the costs to purchase, maintain and insure an inventory of underused resources. All 100 counties, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and nearly three-fourths of the state’s 650 municipalities participate in the Mutual Aid System.
Creating a Consistent Search and Rescue Program
When Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, dozens of search and rescue teams were scattered across the state. Most teams consisted of two to three volunteers, and skill levels, training and capabilities varied widely. A few of the more advanced teams had some swift water rescue training and were outfitted with an inflatable motorized boat. Thousands of people are alive today because of the hard work and dedication of those teams, but the haphazard response highlighted the critical need for a coordinated statewide rescue program with consistent training.
Following Floyd, North Carolina 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. The result was an arsenal of consistently trained, organized search and rescue teams that could be deployed at a moment’s notice.
Local rescue teams are not now, nor have they ever been, required to meet state standards to operate in their town or county. But, to help with search and rescue missions in other parts of the state, they must complete the more stringent state-mandated training. Teams are comprised mostly of local volunteer fire fighters, law enforcement officials or emergency medical technicians from the local rescue squad.
Today, there are 30 highly-trained swift water rescue teams positioned across the state that meet national standards and can be deployed anywhere within North Carolina or across the country. Teams can be pre-deployed with the needed resources based on the team’s level of capability.
Another team in the state’s search and rescue program is the Helicopter and Aquatic Rescue Team, or NCHART. It became the first of its kind in the nation to implement a regimented training and response program that pairs the best civilian rescuers with state aviation assets. The program combines the expertise of local rescue technicians with the training, maintenance and capabilities of the N.C. Highway Patrol or National Guard aviation units. The 47 rescue technicians who participate in NCHART train on a quarterly basis on various skills ranging from swiftwater/flood rescue to high angle and wilderness rescue. Those that train for HART are also qualified to aid on swift water rescue teams.
HART teams were used extensively following hurricanes Frances and Ivan in 2004. Fast moving water and landslides cut off many roads and escape routes in the mountains trapping hundreds of people. The teams delivered an estimated 350 citizens to safety.
In 2001, shortly after Floyd, the state began working with several larger fire departments and rescue squads to develop a regionalized Urban Search and Rescue program. Highly trained and properly equipped, teams range from 16 to 72 people and can provide search and rescue for any type of fallen structure as well as swift water or land search capabilities. Seven teams are strategically located in municipal areas to quickly respond to any area of the state. The teams are designed to provide almost immediate relief to victims within the first few hours of an incident.
The state’s search and rescue capabilities have dramatically increased in the past 15 years. The program – comprised of Swift Water Rescue, NCHART and Urban Search and Rescue teams – means that North Carolinians can be rescued from flood waters, collapsed buildings or treacherous mountainous terrain. North Carolina has enhanced its search and rescue program from just a few teams with inconsistent skill sets prior to 1999 to dozens of teams with defined, consistent abilities.
Preparing for Anything
Much like the search and rescue teams, the state’s Hazardous Materials Regional Response Team (RRT) program is a system of seven teams strategically located to respond to hazardous material incidents with technical support, manpower, specialized equipment and/or supplies. Created in 1994, each team is composed of emergency response personnel who are certified and qualified to handle a wide range of hazmat incidents.
The RRTs are available to supplement local resources when an incident is beyond the first responders’ capabilities. Such incidents generally require more sophisticated equipment and hazardous materials technicians who have received a higher level of training. The team’s state-of-the-art equipment and supplies are transported in a specially designed tractor-trailer truck, complete with a communications center work area in the rear of the trailer unit.
The hazmat teams respond to dozens of calls annually for assistance in incidents like the truck that overturned with 22,000 pounds of dynamite on Interstate-85 or the chemical tanker carrying ethanol that overturned in a small community prompting nearby businesses to evacuate.
Protecting Domestic and Farm Animals
Hurricane Floyd taught local and state first responders that emergency preparedness plans needed to include more than just people after more than 3 million domestic and farm animals were lost during the storm. While Floyd highlighted the need for a coordinated program to handle and house companion animals, Hurricane Katrina six years later would provide the legal and financial incentive to include domestic pets in emergency plans. Two programs were subsequently developed to help care for pets and livestock during and after disasters.
The State Animal Response Team was created as a joint effort among more than 30 state and local government and animal organizations to create a safe, quick response to emergencies that impacted livestock or large domestic pets such as horses. Conversely, Companion Animal Mobile Equipment Trailers (CAMET) were designed and positioned across the state to quickly establish pet shelters so that pet owners could bring their pets with them when they evacuate. The state now has 50 CAMETs that can be deployed when the need arises; each unit holds 50-100 small pets. In addition to being used in co-sheltering situations (where people and pets are both sheltered at the same location), the CAMETs have been used in local animal welfare situations when large numbers of animals have been removed from a home or shelter.
Being Medically Equipped to Handle Disasters
North Carolina has worked with its federal, local and state partners to develop a coordinated approach to responding to disaster situations. The state’s ability to respond to the medical needs of those affected by natural and manmade disasters has greatly increased during the past 15 years. The result, a tiered system called the State Medical Response System, is comprised of state, regional and local State Medical Assistance Teams containing trained medical personnel and mobile medical equipment that can be dispatched to aid in response and recovery efforts.
The state’s Medical Disaster Hospital is an addition to North Carolina’s growing response and recovery capabilities. The portable medical center includes a surgery unit, emergency department, trauma services, clinical area, lab services and an X-ray unit. It can be deployed anywhere in the nation to temporarily replace a fixed or field medical facility that has been damaged. For instance, earlier this year the mobile medical center was sent to Mississippi through the Mutual Aid System to provide medical support to a community whose 41-bed hospital, medical clinics and only nursing home were destroyed by tornadoes.
Improving Fundamental Resources
North Carolina has not only improved it capacity to respond with rescue teams and mobile equipment, but it has developed behind-the-scene tools that more accurately address vulnerabilities and encourage better preparedness. Massive flooding from Hurricane Floyd topped 500-year flood levels, highlighting the state’s need for accurate, up-to-date floodplain maps and safer floodplain development standards. In September 2000, North Carolina partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to remap the state’s floodplains using advanced digital floodplain mapping technology. Since then, flood maps for all 100 counties have been revised with routine scheduled updates every five years. The state’s remapping efforts set the national standard for accurate floodplain mapping. It has helped communities and property owners to identify actual flood risks and take appropriate steps to prevent flood damage.
The aftermath of Hurricane Floyd and the September 11th terrorist attacks revealed a lapse in first responders’ ability to communicate with one another without going through a communications center. The development of the Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders, or VIPER, allowed fire, rescue and law enforcement agencies to communicate directly with one another through a single radio system. VIPER provides another means of joint coordination between state and local emergency responders.
In 2012, North Carolina Emergency Management moved into a new state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center on the N.C. National Guard joint force headquarters campus. The new building features some of the most modern technologies and energy-efficient “green” engineering. Now, co-located with the NCNG, State Highway Patrol Communications Center and state transportation operations center, the State Emergency Operations center is positioned to more efficiently respond to natural disasters or other emergencies.
“The state’s emergency response capabilities have evolved with every disaster this state has faced,” said NCEM Director Mike Sprayberry. “To think how much better equipped and prepared we are now than we were 15 years ago, is encouraging. Yet there is still much to do.”
To help North Carolinians better prepare themselves for emergencies, NCEM earlier this year launched the ReadyNC mobile application. Available free for both iPhone and Droid devices, the app provides real-time information to help individuals and families prepare themselves for most any type of emergency. The app, along with its sister website (ReadyNC.org), provide up-to-date weather and traffic conditions as well as specific ways to plan and prepare, including instructions for creating an emergency supplies kit.
“We never know when the next disaster will strike,” explained Sprayberry. “But we do know that the more prepared you are before disaster strikes, the easier and faster it will be to recover afterwards.”
Written by: Laura Leonard
Source: North Carolina Division Emergency Management