Note: This is the second article in a four-part series remembering some of North Carolina’s most noteable hurricanes while highlighting some of the progress our state has made since to ensure we are better prepared for such storms. Click here for Part 1
Part 2: Coordinating Efforts
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 Swiftwater 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.