Tuesday, June 25, 2024

New Hanover report shows lack of communication, resources, and training during Florence, suggests improvements

The report was based on over a dozen focus groups involving nearly 200 county employees. It shows problems across the entire range of Emergency Operations Command response to Hurricane Florence --- but it also recommends a range of solutions to those issues.

Hurricane Florence continues its bee-line towards North Carolina (Port City Daily/Courtesy NOAA)
Hurricane Florence tested the county’s emergency response in every way. A new report on the county’s ability to handle the storm notes problems across the board. Officials say the frankness of the report is a deliberate commitment to transparency and a prerequisite for improvement. (Port City Daily/Courtesy NOAA)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — An internal report on New Hanover County’s response during and after Hurricane Florence shows problems with organization, communication, and logistics. The report also lays out an aggressive plan to address those issues.

The “Hurricane Florence After Action Report” was compiled by JD Limberger, senior strategy and continuous improvement analyst, and Jennifer Rigby, strategy and policy coordinator, and Beth Schrader, chief strategy officer. The report outlines areas of “strength” – that is, what went well — and “opportunity” – that is, what did not. (You can read the complete report at the end of this article.)

The report was built on focus groups featuring over a dozen sessions and nearly 200 county employees. The results were organized into five areas: communications, operations, resources, staffing, and training.

The report is notable for its frankness about problems that occurred during the county’s response to Hurricane Florence. That was intentional, according to County Manager Chris Coudriet, who said it was part of the county’s commitment to being accountable and transparent.

“I think, all things considered, a lot more thing went right and well, but we didn’t find that the directive of the Board [of Commissioners] was to continue to go back and pat ourselves on the back, but instead to find where we had issues and take a critical review of that,” Coudriet said.

Jessica Loeper, the county’s interim chief communications officer, went further to say the report may be “startling” to some because it deliberately focused on the problems over the successes.

“We wanted to be incredibly transparent with our organization, our commissioners, and the community, and that was really important to us. So, we wanted our employees to see, this is what we heard from you — what we’re sharing were the worst things that we heard. No, it’s not always going to sound great, because we’re sharing transparently the worst parts of what happened,” Loeper said. “Because we want to learn from it, we want to grow from it, we want our organization to understand that we’re hearing them, and we’re going to improve and make sure our community knows that as well.”

Both Loeper and Coudriet said they were proud of county staff for doing “an incredible job of managing the storm” and “keeping our community informed.” They also noted that the storm defied expectations in terms of severity and duration. Coudriet noted that the county worked 21 days of “all hands on deck” during an event of a magnitude the region had not seen in the 19 years since Hurricane Floyd.

The report concludes with a detailed plan to address these issues, complete with a timeline for implementing new plans and regulations. Parts of the plan will be carried out by a new planning section, created within the county’s EOC to handle emergency situations.

Each section of the report is introduced by a quote from the county’s group debriefing, intended to encapsulate a core issue in each area. The quotes were rendered anonymously in the report.

Communication problems

 “A lot of employees didn’t know what their roles were or who to go to for questions. We spend our days working our regular jobs and the emergency roles are not familiar to us. For most of the time, I wondered who was in charge or who I was supposed to report to…”

As the quote indicates, the chain of command was reportedly unclear, with employees sometimes receiving conflicting orders from their regular supervisors and EOC command staff.

Further, according to the report, “employees received mixed messages from their immediate supervisors on reporting for emergency duty and ‘on call’ employees were confused about whether they should evacuate or shelter in place,” and whether or not the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was rated to stand up to Category 4 winds, the strength at which Florence was initially forecast to make landfall (the EOC is not rated for medium-to-high strength Category 4 storms).

Employees that reported to the EOC were “unclear on what to bring, where they would sleep when off duty, and how to prepare, some employees brought family members to the EOC, while others were unaware of this options.”

Finally, EOC staff were unclear about what information was intended for the general public (and the media) and which was reserved for emergency crews.

“This confusion occurred throughout the storm,” the report notes, including “a few instances where information was shared publicly regarding safe driving routes for residents looking to return when those routes were intended to be reserved for delivery of emergency supplies.”

Operations and shelters

“We put base camp together on the fly. It was created for all of the rescue workers coming into town. Then it was transitioned into the location for [Department of Social Services] and food stamps. It didn’t seem like there was ever a plan…”

Overall, the report notes that employees were unclear about their responsibilities and goals and “felt reactive instead of proactive during the storm.”

Shelters were also an issue. The report notes “several shelter locations failed due to structural damage from the storm,” and suggests that work is needed to create more resilient structures. Coudriet noted that much of the damage done to shelters was not from traditional flooding (i.e. rising floodwaters) or from wind, but from the heavy and prolonged rain.

It should be noted that the question of whether the county should perform a mandatory evacuation in the event that a Category 3 or above storm makes landfall remains very much open; while the county’s shelters are located out of the floodplain, they can’t stand up to that kind of wind. At the same time, Coudriet noted, the state may lack the resources to accommodate transportation and housing for a quarter million people.

Coudriet said the county does need to decide what its evacuation and sheltering policy will be.

“Should there be pre-storm shelters or not — if the answers is yes, we have to acknowledge that most of the shelter facilities are older, but they are out of the storm-surge flooding,” Coudriet said. “We need to get real clear on that.”

Other shelter issues included the county’s struggle to transport individuals to and from shelters, medical facilities, and point of distribution facilities.

A lack of shelter security was also documented.

“There was not a security or badging system for the [EOC] and several employees felt uncomfortable sleeping in unsecure places. Further, staff were unclear on the appropriate security measures at shelters with children and adults,” according to the report.

Resources

“Our shelters didn’t have enough cots, medical supplies, blankets, or supplies for babies and kids. It made me feel helpless and made an already hard situation even worse…”

Flooding cut off major transportation routes into the Wilmington area following the storm, resulting in a lack of “critical supplies,” the report notes.

Generators proved unreliable when “used beyond their capacity,” causing failures, including at the EOC itself. Thankfully, the report notes, a team of 911 staff had been set up in Raleigh, allowing emergency calls to be rerouted when the EOC lost power.

Fuel was also an issue, and – while not mentioned in the report – CFPUA nearly ran out of fuel following the storm, threatening the drinking water for a large region that was already without power. It fell to EOC staff to help secure a fuel source for CFPUA.

The report also notes the lack of a “community feeding plan,” as the region quickly began to run out of food with transportation routes cut off — massive, hour-long lines at the few open grocery stores were a testament to this problem.

Lastly, there was “confusion regarding the assets within the county” (notably “backhoes, forklifts, trucks, etc.”).

Staff underused or overused

“Titles at the EOC sounds good, but the work didn’t align. I was a Time Unit Leader and often felt like I had nothing to do because WebEOC [a brand of crisis management software] automatically tracks a person’s time when they log in … there were hours when I didn’t feel like I was contributing and I didn’t know what to do to help.”

The report cites the need for flexible staffing and giving the EOC command staff and managers the ability to “staff up” and “staff down.” Some sections weren’t able to “prevent burnout and ensure staff had adequate rest between shifts.”

“Employees felt very reactive to the response to Hurricane Florence and noticed missing roles and gaps with the EOC,” the report notes.

One specific example was that lack of a prearranged plan for setting up a base camp for the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team, which put additional pressure on staff as they tried to develop a plan from scratch on the fly. Another example was the “Emergency Management Director [Steven Still] was over-tasked during this event,” and administrative support for 911 staff had to be reorganized.

Training

“I wasn’t prepared for what was being asked of me. The word ‘logistics’ can mean so much, and I didn’t feel like I had the training to be successful … We need training that is specific to our emergency positions, more than once a year for a few hours…”

The report notes that many employees felt unprepared for a storm of Florence’s magnitude (not to mention the possibility that Florence could have made landfall with much more powerful winds), noting that a single yearly drill left many issues unaddressed.

Employees requested training in a host of fields, from basics to national policy, including:

  • First Aid and CPR
  • FEMA/NIMS (National Incident Management System, Homeland Security’s standardized first responder procedure)
  • Mental Health and trauma support skills
  • Medical confidentiality regulations (HIPPA)
  • Red Cross shelter procedures
  • Web EOC (the county’s crisis response software)
  • Family, pet, and home preparation (the “family first” training suggested by the report)
  • General safety training

Employees were also distracted by concerns about their families, the report implies, suggesting that in the future the county needs a “family first” training program that “educates employees and their families for how to prepare for emergency events.” This training should include “a family evacuation plan or shelter plan” that allows employees some level of comfort and assurance about loved ones, allowing them to “focus on their responsibility to the community during the storm,” the report states.

Action plan

The After Action Report calls for a wide range of initiatives to address issues across the five categories explored in the report — some of those efforts are already underway. The report also calls for creating a new “planning section” within the county’s EOC to be a dedicated planning group during emergencies.

“That group would be planning 12-24-48 hours out,” Coudriet said, adding that advanced planning would allow other employees to focus on real-time implementation of plans without the stress of trying to adapt on the fly.

The timeline is aggressive, Coudriet noted: “It’s aggressive, but aggressive because we have a sense of urgency.”

Communications

  • February 2019: Modify EOC organization chart
  • June 2019: Implement ID system; create clear job descriptions and contact lists; create communication plans for staff, non-profits and faith-based groups, and the public.

Operations

  • March 2019: Create comprehensive evacuation declaration guidelines,
  • June 2019: Implement and train a planning section for EOC; develop security and accountability plan for EOC and shelters; develop onboarding and training for integrating “key partners” into EOC; create comprehensive sheltering policy.
  • Dec 2019: Integrate incident management team into operations; develop transportation plans; develop a plan to reinforce critical buildings
  • June 2020: Develop a consolidated safety center (i.e. EOC and logistics warehouse), document plans for “complete community” distribution; update site selection for staging base camp, Duke employees, debris removal teams, etc.; integrate Joint Command Center into EOC.

Resources

  • June 2019: negotiate “prepositioned” contracts for critical resources (fuel, food, generators,e tc.); secure software access; develop “community feeding plan”; document plan to preposition 911 staff and assets inland; develop a county asset tracking system; develop a “Business EOC” to coordinate resources with local resources.
  • June 2020: Develop a community asset tracking system; develop and document “fuel consortium” and “community fuel farm”; set up a universal case management system for DSS; develop a logistic relief plan.
  • December 2022: Prioritize transportation projects based on resiliency (to avoid the isolation caused by road flooding and damage during Florence).

Staffing

  • January 2019: Appoint a new 911 director.
  • June 2019: Update staff assignments and expectations with a clear organizational chart; add new staff to support Web EOC.

Training

  • June 2019: FEMA/NIMS training, role-based training, drills, and exercises; safety training, Red Cross shelter training.
  • December 2019: Training for First Aid, CPR, mental health and trauma support.
  • June 2020: Multiple sessions of training for Web EOC; “family first training’; practice drills.

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correctly identify Jennifer Rigby as strategy and policy coordinator — Beth Schrader is the chief strategy officer.)


 

New Hanover County Hurrican… by on Scribd


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

Related Articles