Counties’ emergency responders must know the answers to all those “What ifs?” well ahead of an actual disaster. Every five years, counties update their disaster response and mitigation plans — an exercise Haywood and Jackson counties have recently completed. The emergency response roadmaps not only outline how to react should disaster strike, but also aim to mitigate or ultimately avoid the worst of any given scenario.
In rural WNC, the top natural hazards are flash flooding and landslides from heavy rains and winter snow and ice storms. Still you never know what you are going to get.
“The mountains are just such a unique beast when it comes to weather,” said Haywood County Emergency Management Director Greg Shuping.
Just because something is listed as a hazard doesn’t make it automatically the top priority, however. For example, Jackson County has seven dams, some of them quite large. A dam break would devastate homes and result in high death tolls, but given all the state and federal oversight of the dams, it is also one of the things Todd Dillard, Jackson’s director of emergency management, is not overly frightful of.
“The loss of life would be staggering,” Dillard said. But “This is probably my least worry.”
Counties have plans in place for any type of disaster — natural or otherwise — but each hazard takes a certain level of priority based on likeliness.
And while the emergency response plans address an action plan for terrorist attacks, that is considered highly unlikely in such a rural area, Dillard said.
Shuping agreed. Natural hazards, such as flash flooding or winter storms, are typically the most worrisome since they are more likely to occur.
“Historically, natural disasters is something we take very seriously,” Shuping said.
Many of the possible disaster are unique to the mountains, such as landslides. Shuping two years ago orchestrated a mock disaster drill that simulated a collapsed tunnel on Interstate 40 with trapped motorists buried in rubble.
With each new snowstorm or rainstorm, the emergency management departments figure out how they can do better and tweak their procedures. For Haywood County Emergency Management, major wide-scale flooding along the Pigeon River in Canton and Clyde in 2004 helped the county pinpoint a crucial flaw.
“We did not have a good communications network,” Shuping said.
Emergency workers in Haywood, including EMS, fire and police, spoke either in person or via phone conference, before any impeding severe weather.
“We are notorious for having a conference call with 50 people,” Shuping said.
However, there was no good way to obtain reliable information from county residents on what was happening on the ground in their neck of the woods. In a county as large as Haywood, with diverse topography and geography, emergency responders needed more eyes and ears to help them react appropriately.
Shuping wants to launch a training program for civilians to become weather spotters. The spotters would act as extra eyes on the ground, relaying information to emergency officials and to the National Weather Service in the Greenville-Spartanburg area.
The residents would “text, call, email, post somehow to a centralized point what is happening in their community,” Shuping said. “There is nothing like real-time reports.”
By training a select group of residents how to look for potential trouble areas, emergency management can collect information from all across the county that they know is not hyperbole or false alarms, allowing them to work more efficiently.
“The challenge is we want creditable information only,” Shuping said. “We don’t want to get, ‘It’s past the old oak tree where the house fire was three years ago.’”
Citizen reports will also allow the National Weather Service and county to issue better and more early warnings about potential weather-related problems.
“The biggest thing we try to hang our hat on is the early warning,” Shuping said. “When you have an early warning, you can make your own provisions.”
If people know a big snowstorm is headed their way, they can stock up on canned goods and water and make sure they have an alterative plan in case the power goes out. They can also move their elderly relatives or friends someplace safer if they live alone. For emergency management leaders, what helps the most is people caring for themselves, making their only preparations against potential hazards.
“Are you prepared to stay there three days to a week without power?” Shuping said. “People need to be self-sufficient. We cannot possibly take care of 60,000 people.”
For both Haywood and Jackson counties, volunteers and community efforts are key to keeping people safe during a disaster.
“They are the bedrock,” Dillard said.
Counties hazard and disaster plans must be retooled and updated every five years, or the county is not eligible for federal assistance following a disaster. The plans give officials an outline for how to act in the event of an emergency.
For instance, plans state that emergency officials must meet to make sure everyone knows their jobs and what to expect when inclement weather is on the horizon. They keep up contact throughout the storm to provide officials with the latest and communicate with the state about possible assistance.
“We are constantly talking on the phone,” Dillard said.
Preparedness is crucial. Are the ambulances gassed up? Are there extra batteries for flashlights? Do residents know what’s going on and are they braced for it?
Both Haywood and Jackson counties have phone notification systems in place for residents who want emergency alerts during a disaster. Residents of either can visit the home-page of their county’s website to sign-up for the alerts, which can go to a home phone or cell phone.