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Outside, the sun was shining and life was carrying on as normal, but inside the conference center at Haw River State Park recently, it was another story.
Emergency personnel spent four days acting as if Mother Nature was bearing down on the state and they were tasked with mitigating the disaster as part of a training exercise.
“Trainings like this help us manage our incidents because it allows us to practice without true critical situations on the line,” said Wilson County Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno. “I bring that information and experience back to Wilson. I can think through problems we encountered during training and how we dealt with it, so we can be prepared.”
Since starting in the position in 1993, Deno has spent countless hours training for the worst, then using those skills to help Wilson or to deploy and help other communities across the country. Similar to his fall deployment to Puerto Rico, Deno led an incident management team with personnel from a variety of backgrounds with a spectrum of experience.
“To get credentialed in these positions, there is a process and a task book they have to complete and show proficiency. A lot of people were there to get their credentials and make them available to deploy in the event of a major incident,” Deno said. “So the biggest thing was remembering not everyone is at the same skill level in the exercise and it was a learning environment, but everyone had something they could learn from it.”
During the exercise, the facilitators threw real-life curve balls at the teams like power outages, limited resources and nagging reporters. Deno said working with strangers also was realistic since deployments or requests for assistance mean working side-by-side with officials from different areas.
“I may get a call today at 3 p.m. about a major incident in the western part of the state and they’ll ask if I can be ready to go tomorrow morning,” he said. “You don’t have time to contact everyone you could be working with. You have to meet them when they come in, learning their strengths and weaknesses as you work.
“But just because I may know some things, there are things I don’t know and someone on my team might.”
While the four-day training centered around a hurricane scenario in Onslow County, Deno said the experience can be translated to storms bigger and smaller close to home.
“When we think about the situations that can happen in major storms, the same can happen in minor storms but with less severity,” he said. “We can take the experience and the training and scale it down to handle incidents more efficiently and favorably.”
And while there still are 83 days until hurricane season starts, this week was declared Severe Weather Preparedness Week across North Carolina.
“Severe thunderstorms involve a variety of weather conditions such as hail, flash floods and tornadoes,” Nash County Assistant Emergency Management Director Brent Fisher said in a press release. “These storms can develop so rapidly that having a plan in place beforehand is critical.”
In 2017, the National Weather Service issued 85 tornado warnings across North Carolina and recorded 30 tornadoes on the ground along with 104 flood or flash flood events. For Wilson County, the National Weather Service issued 13 severe thunderstorm warnings with an average of 20 minutes notice and two area flood warnings.
Deno urged residents to prepare now for an emergency by visiting ReadyNC.org and getting tips on developing emergency plans and supply kits.
“For an emergency, you need to have set locations to meet in case your family is separated and you need to have someone out of the area that everyone in your family knows to contact,” he said. “Think through what you’ll do if the power goes out, if you lose water and such. If Grandma needs oxygen or medications she can’t live without, plan ahead.
“It is our job as emergency managers to put that information out there, but it is their job to actually prepare.”
Ensuring plans include needs of babies — such as formula and diapers — as well as animals is essential. In addition to essential documents, Deno said having food and water to last at least three days is important, but so is a way to open cans and cook without power.
“Choose food that doesn’t necessarily have to be cooked in case your grill is destroyed or something,” he said. “Historically, city water hasn’t gone down, but it can. There could be a problem, so you need to plan ahead by filling your bathtub with water when a storm is on the horizon. If you have medicine that needs to be refrigerated, get a good-quality cooler and freeze two-liter bottles to keep your insulin from spoiling for a few days.
“Look at storm preparations like an insurance policy. You have insurance on your car and your house, but the best insurance you can have in the case of severe weather is being prepared.”
Signing up for the county’s Code Red emergency alert system is recommended and can be done at www.wilson-co.com/departments/emergency-management/.