BURGAW — On Thursday top officials at the Pender County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) responded to claims made by members of the United Cajun Navy (UCN) that the county had denied the group’s network of boats and aircraft access to operate rescue and supply missions within county lines during the days of flooding that occurred after Hurricane Florence made landfall.
Emergency Management Director Tom Collins, EMS & Fire Chief Woody Sullivan, and Public Information Officer Tammy Proctor gathered in the EOC’s conference room to firmly contest the UCN’s accusations.
According to Sullivan, the group had arrived with four boats — two airboats and two flat-bottomed johnboats — three of which were allowed to stay and operate within the EOC’s vetted incident command structure. Earlier this week, UCN founder Todd Terrell said he had led a group of 60 boat crews to Burgaw on the Friday night after Florence made landfall, and that all but three boats were turned away by the EOC.
Sullivan’s account was backed by a man named Harley Giesbrecht from DeRidder, Louisiana who said he was a part of the group of 60 to 80 people who accompanied Terrell to Burgaw.
“We had precisely four boats. All the rest of them were just a bunch of people wanting to help, and they had zero equipment,” Giesbrecht said. “There were four boats I was aware of.”
Giesbrecht said that Sullivan then called a private meeting with Terrell and himself to assess the level of resources that UCN was offering. During the meeting it was agreed by all parties, according to both Giesbrecht and Sullivan, that two airboats and one johnboat would be absorbed into the EOC’s communications and operations structure.
“When Todd left, he had agreed they should be within our command structure,” Sullivan said.
Aside from a group of four men led by Giesbrecht to operate the two airboats, the rest of the group was told to leave due to limited food and space at the EOC building, which was already occupied by approximately 300 people, according to Giesbrecht.
“This group came in at the height of the event, and we had to vet ’em, so they didn’t like it,” Collins said.
Addressing concerns raised by Terrell that the Pender County EOC did not have enough resources and people to handle the flooding caused by the area’s rising rivers, Sullivan showed an inventory list of boat crews that were performing rescue operations in the days after the storm. The list showed a growing number of boat crews as the floods worsened: on Saturday, September 15th, the EOC sent out 11 boat teams and 39 rescuers; on Tuesday it sent 45 boat crews and 158 rescuers.
Boat crews employed during this four-day period came from various North Carolina counties and municipalities, the National Guard, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and two teams from Indiana.
For Collins, the question of whether his EOC was prepared or not came down to the results.
“We did over 1,800 rescue calls in this county in a five to six day period. We have only found one individual who had drowned — in a 900 square mile county. So if we were not doing our jobs — we pulled people out of cars, off rooftops, out of houses, attics, every possible place — when they accuse us of this incompetence, our record speaks for itself. If we were incompetent, a hell of a lot more people would have died. That’s all I’m gonna say about that,” Collins said.
Both Collins and Sullivan attributed these results to a structured, well-planned command structure — one in which the ability of all rescuers, and an established communications system between rescuers and the EOC — was of paramount importance. They saw red flags when the UCN wished to operate outside of this structure, and without receiving credentials from the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) forum.
“We try hard to adhere to [the VOAD] … while we’re in command of this county, the state EOC is who we look to for guidance and for resources,” EMS and Fire IT Director Bruce Sandy said. “And we try to — especially in real emergency times — we try to work with organizations on that VOAD because they’re vetted, because we know they’ve met all the requirements we need, and we don’t have to figure it out again.”
In regards to Terrell’s earlier claims that “600 people [were] in shelters and they got no food,” Sandy said that this was not the case.
“I’m not aware of any place where we ran out of food, where anybody went hungry,” Sandy said. “We even went to people who couldn’t get out or wouldn’t leave; we even carried 5-ton assets to them and unloaded food for them and we carried food in helicopters to them. That’s an inaccuracy that really bothers me — that we let people starve. I was pretty embedded in the operation at that point: we made sure people got fed.”
As for Giesbrecht and his crew operating the two speedboats, the two weeks working alongside Collins, Sullivan and the EOC was a positive experience.
“They have done a phenomenal job. A lot of those guys were trapped there because they couldn’t get to their homes. There were some who normally work there and couldn’t get there because they were trapped on the other side of the floodwater. So they used the guys they had there, and any who lived close enough to rotate in and out despite the floodwaters … [Sullivan] treated us absolutely like royalty while we were there. We were just individuals coming in there and he took us in like some of his own. My hat’s off to him – he has done a fantastic job,” Giesbrecht said.
In an email received by Port City Daily Friday at noon, volunteer Jim Brumfield, who operated the second airboat alongside Giesbrecht, said the following:
As I saw it looking back, Pender County EOC only had so much shelter space and food, and were anticipating being cut off with flood waters. I think the command at the EOC used their assets, people, equipment, and commodities very efficiently. All the time the command center was monitoring road closures, weather, and 911 calls dispatching the proper assistance, as well as all other hazards and aspects of this emergency.
I saw Sheriffs Department, State Police, Swiftwater crews, and our airboats out manning roadblocks and answering emergency calls. At no time did I hear anyone say that any calls were missed — on the contrary we were sent back a second time on some calls if a contact was not made to assure that a resident was okay. We had time between calls and were sent to cruise areas to make sure there was no one who couldn’t call in and needed rescue. We covered a lot of area — the Cape Fear River, the Black River, and several creeks where residential areas were cut off — and rescued anyone who wanted to leave … We also, as time permitted, assisted county residents in retrieving meds and other supplies from flooded houses.
In my opinion, the Pender County EOC was run very efficiently and was very organized. They took care of and saw to it that all first responders were able to keep up the pace by helping keep vehicles and boats operating and personnel fed. The first responders saw and participated in the rescue of residents and nursing homes, loading and unloading supplies, helping clean and sweep and assist with cooking, transporting techs to keep city water pumps repaired and running, and transporting officers and deputies at night to neighborhoods to prevent looting.
Author’s Note: This is an ongoing story. Stay tuned for a more in-depth analysis.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com