How to handle a Category 4 storm

Hurricane season officially began June 1, and while North Carolinians hope major storms will once again steer clear of our coast, the state’s emergency management division is taking no chances.

The annual major hurricane exercise, a dry run practice of procedures to be followed during a real hurricane, was held June 17 at the Eastern Branch offices of the North Carolina Emergency Management division in Kinston.  It featured a disaster scenario developed through a month-long collaboration between Tom Collins, manager of the state Emergency Management Division’s Eastern Branch, and RENCI’s disaster research team.

More than 50 county and state emergency managers and representatives from the National Weather Service (NWS), Red Cross, the U.S. Army and Navy, and the state Highway Patrol participated in the all-day tabletop exercise.

In the scenario, a monster Category 4 storm heads toward the coast, first threatening the state’s southern coast in Brunswick County, then turning briefly out to sea and finally heading inland and roaring ashore in Hyde and Dare counties on the Outer Banks. The simulated storm hits the coast with 150 mile-per-hour winds and an 18-foot storm surge.

“The idea was to present a scenario that was very severe and really tested everyone’s ability to respond in a coordinated way,” said Scott Madry, RENCI’s geospatial data scientist. “Our goal was to prepare everyone for the worst and hopefully, we won’t have to deal with anything that severe.”

RENCI staff worked with the National Weather Service so that regular NWS weather briefings were part of the exercise and used the SmileTiger video conferencing system, adapted by RENCI for use by state and county emergency managers, to connect remote participants to the exercise. RENCI also provided a storm surge computer model and demonstrated a vehicle tracking system that requires only a laptop computer and a GPS-enabled cell phone to track vehicles in the field.

“RENCI was instrumental in developing an exercise that gave our managers realistic  training in responding to a Category 4 storm,” said Collins. “The tools RENCI has created and the training it has provided have greatly enhanced our ability to deal with everything from monster storms to isolated incidents. Thanks to RENCI, we have also improved our coordination capabilities at the Eastern Branch office.”

A number of RENCI staff members participated in the exercise onsite in Kinston. Staff at RENCI at UNC Asheville and RENCI at East Carolina University participated through videoconferencing.

Hurricanes weren’t the only mock disaster on tap for the state in June. On June 23 and 24, a disaster exercise aimed at western North Carolina depicted a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in the Asheville area that collapsed roads, bridges and earthen dams and sparked numerous fires. For that exercise a 13-vehicle Urban Search and Rescue convoy from Charlotte set out to the quake-stricken area to find and evacuate victims and provide emergency medical assistance.

The command vehicle in the convoy was equipped with RENCI’s Automated Vehicle Location (AVL) system, which tracked the convoy’s  location and communicated it back to a command center, where participants could track its progress on the Web. The AVL system tracked the convoy in real time throughout the two-day exercise, the most thorough testing of the system to date.

The inability to “see” vehicles in the field is a handicap during complicated emergencies that involve rescues, evacuations, firefighting and medical assistance, often happening all at once. Automatic vehicle tracking can help emergency managers conduct these complicated activities more efficiently and effectively.

For more on RENCI’s AVL system, see: