Hurricanes have become an unfortunate fact of life for North Carolinians in the last decade.
As the term “100-year storm” starts to look less and less reliable, preparing for devastating storms and the flooding that often follows has become vital for people all across the state. The same is true for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Emergency Programs division, which is responsible for coordinating preparation and response to natural disasters which affect agriculture.
Dealing with Hurricanes is mostly a matter of preparation said John Howard, NCDA&CS Emergency Programs Director.
“We spend a lot of our time leading up to Hurricane season having discussions with our partners both external and internal, and just making sure that everyone understands their part in the process,” he said. “We bring together resources and personnel from many different divisions and NGO’s, so making sure that we have that coordination ahead of time is important.”
Internally, Emergency Programs’ biggest partners are the NCDA&CS Veterinary division and the NC Forest Service. These divisions contribute both personnel and resources across the entire state, helping with everything from large and companion animal search and rescue to disposing of dead animals before they become health hazards.
All of this operates within the Incident Command System, which is the standard framework used by emergency management organizations to share resources and information during an incident. The ICS allows the EP division to both organize the resources at its disposal while also being prepared to fit into the larger statewide response to a disaster like a hurricane.
“During a hurricane event, we’ll get requests from the state Emergency Operations Center that are specifically within our wheelhouse,” Howard said. “From there we can decide to open up our own Ag EOC, where we bring our people to work together in the same place.”
As hurricanes become more common, it is important for emergency management groups to train constantly in order to minimize the amount of time it takes to respond. North Carolina is currently in the middle of hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30 and is predicted to have between 13 and 20 named storms.
Major storms are getting more common, Howard said. Within the last five years, the North Carolina has experienced multiple major floods, often called 100-year or 500-year floods to describe their rarity.
Dealing with that kind of threat takes cooperation with more than just internal partners. While Emergency Programs has the benefit of being able to draw resources from across the entire NCDA&CS, the division also maintains partnerships with other groups who are well-equipped to handle specific challenges.
“We work with several non-governmental organizations that are highly trained in animal search and rescue, high water rescue and that type of thing. Often on those types of events we have relatively few departmental staff, and instead we have memorandums of understanding with those groups to help us when they’re needed,” Howard said.
As we saw recently with the impact of Tropical Depression Fred in Western NC, emergency management experts across the state need to be prepared for disaster to strike anywhere. Howard summed up the EP division’s approach by quoting former assistant commissioner Joe Reardon.
“Joe Reardon used to have a good saying for things like this,” he said. “We hope we never have to do any of this. But hope is not a strategy.”