Local officials are pleased with the cooperation and coordination that went into emergency preparedness last week in anticipation of Hurricane Earl.
The once Category 4 hurricane blew by the state’s coastline as a Category 2 storm last Friday, causing flooding and some wind damage on the Outer Banks. No damage was reported in Perquimans County.
As local officials experience relief now that the storm didn’t make a direct hit, their planning practice run, as it may be termed, showed their strengths and weaknesses.
“While we didn’t feel much of the effects of this storm, Hurricane Earl was still a major hurricane,” said County Manager Bobby Darden after the storm passed. “had Hurricane Earl been predicted to make landfall and made more impact on Northeast NC, so many other things would come into play for us, such as mandatory evacuations, hurricane shelters, and post-disaster cleanup. So much of our decisions are based on strength and track of a storm. if we ever get a storm with the strength of Hurricane Earl on the track of Hurricane Isabel, it would be devastating.”
Darden’s words drive home the importance of emergency preparedness planning county-wide. The county’s emergency management coordinator, Jarvis Winslow, led the efforts dealing with the storm projected to be the worst storm he’s seen during his four and a half years in the emergency management post.
“this was really my first one,” he said. “We had seen some small storms but nothing of the magnitude that Earl was projected to have been. I missed Isabel.”
The preparations for Earl pinpointed some weaknesses that had to be fixed immediately.
“We found out about a couple of problems that we wouldn’t have known about if it had not been for the storm coming,” he said. “We got them corrected.”
one of the problems was a backup generator in the communications tower that was not working correctly. The problem was discovered during a routine maintenance examination that just happened to occur the week before the hurricane.
“We got that corrected before the storm was expected to be here,” he said.
There also was a problem with an antenna serving amateur radio operators that was not working properly.
“We got that fixed also,” he said.
Winslow said even though Perquimans felt little effect from Earl, the preparation for a storm has to be based on the worst-case scenario.
“You plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.
Both the county’s emergency planning groups were called into action as reports of Hurricane Earl possibly impacting Northeastern North Carolina were coming in from state emergency management. The county’s control group, comprised of town and county leaders, social services, school leaders, and law enforcement, met often to receive the latest storm-track information, and to make decisions like whether or not an emergency shelter is needed. The county’s support group, made up of first responders like firefighters, law enforcement, rescuers, and utility crews, met and were briefed on the situation by Winslow in the event an evacuation or storm clean-up was needed.
Hertford Town Manager John Christensen said he believes all agencies involved in emergency preparedness for the county and the two towns have a clear understanding of what needs to be done and how to do it.
“Things came together well,” he noted. “We’ve all gotten better prepared as time goes by.”
For example, Hertford now has a generator at the town’s public works building, which would serve as the town’s emergency operational center in the event of a major event. Also, Christensen says the National Hurricane Center has a better feel of where a hurricane is going to go which, in turn, allows localities more time to prepare.
Darden also feels the planning process passed muster.
“I’m very pleased with the way county departments, towns and other agencies worked together,” said Darden. “Jarvis Winslow did a great job in keeping all agencies informed, and coordinating the emergency response and preparations efforts. We live in an area where tropical storms are going to happen. These near miss events help us learn about our capabilities and shortfalls.”
Darden did say the planning process pointed out two areas in which the county needs improvement.
currently, the county relies on a pre-event contract with a private company to supply generators that will ensure continuous water production at the county’s two water plants.
“It’s very expensive to mobilize these generators prior to the storm, and if the storm event impacts a large geographic area, there is much competition in acquiring the generators,” said Darden. “While we have a contract, if you hesitate in mobilizing, you may have to wait longer for delivery. when Hurricane Earl remained a Category 4 hurricane off of Florida and was heading towards North Carolina, we were also getting reports of possible wind gusts up to 65 mph in Perquimans, so we chose to mobilize the generators in this case. In the end, we didn’t need back-up generators, but it’s always a tough call.”
Darden said the county is working to become more self-reliant in supplying water to county residents after natural disasters.
“Over the past several years, we have installed the smaller generators at our well sites that are also necessary to provide raw water to the treatment plants,” he said. “Generators large enough to power our water treatment plants cost several hundred thousand dollars each. Fortunately, by the end of this calendar year, the county will have a generator installed at our Winfall Water Treatment Plant as part of the stimulus funded project.”
Darden also says he believes county residents must remain vigilant and take heed and prepare when storm warnings are given. Just because the county dodged a bullet named Earl this time doesn’t mean every event will end with the same fortunate result.
“Families and individuals should be prepared to be self-supporting with food, water, and supplies for several days after a storm,” he stressed. “We’ve had several near misses since Hurricane Isabel, and as more years pass, I think people will tend to be less prepared.”
since Hurricane Earl weakened and passed by the state on a more easterly course, the Perquimans County Schools opened their doors Friday two hours later than normal with no problems noted.
Public Information Officer Brenda Lassiter said school superintendent, assistant superintendent, transportation director and safety coordinator began riding the county roadways Friday morning around 6:30 a.m. to make sure buses could safely travel later that morning. Lassiter, herself, arrived at central office by 7 a.m. to receive calls from parents.
School officials were involved in the emergency preparedness meetings with county officials and stayed abreast of the latest storm predictions through emergency management.
“Communications were effective and timely from emergency management in our county,” said Superintendent Dwayne Stallings. “had Hurricane Earl come ashore, schools were prepared to close and be used as a shelter if deemed appropriate and needed by emergency management. I am pleased with the way all departments handled the approach, arrival, and departure of Hurricane Earl. Communication was accurate and prompt, safety measures were taken, and all entities worked collaboratively.”
Reggie Ponder with the Daily Advance contributed to this article.