How prepared is Chatham for more winter storms?

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A 2018 snow day on Highway 64 in Siler City.
A 2018 snow day on Highway 64 in Siler City.
Staff file photo
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You’re sitting at your table eating breakfast and checking the week’s forecast one chilly morning when you spot an ominous sign: on your phone’s weather app, just a few days out, lies a snowflake.

The projected temperatures listed beside it — high and low — are in the low 20s and 30s, which prompts you to search the internet for other local forecasts and weather reports. As you read through it all, you realize with a sinking feeling that yes, your (mostly unreliable) weather app might be correct this time and that yes, it’s time to prepare for wintry weather once again.

Meanwhile, Chatham County Emergency Management and its partners are also launching their own preparations, pushing out information, coordinating with other public safety agencies and readying necessary equipment and infrastructure.

Over the past two weekends, Chatham County, like much of North Carolina, has played host to ice, freezing temperatures and several inches of snow, which may portend a “busy season for us,” according to Steve Newton, Chatham’s emergency management director.

Charged with protecting Chatham residents and visitors, Newton’s department works to mitigate and respond to any potentially “impactful weather” — be that hurricanes in the summer or ice storms in the winter.

“If it’s a dusting of snow, we’re not terribly concerned, you know; we’re monitoring, but we’re not terribly concerned about it, because it doesn’t affect traffic and people’s ability to get home,” he said. “Does it affect their ability to access food and resources? And most importantly, does it affect their power? We really don’t see that until a very heavy accumulation of snow, but more importantly, ice.”

According to Newton, the most dangerous situations brought about by winter weather usually begin to arise once the county accumulates over a tenth of an inch of ice, approaching a quarter, plus several inches of snow.

“[That’s when] we start to get into more power outages, trees down, things like that,” he said.

When ice storms knock out the power, Newton and his department often see people struggle to keep warm, stay safe and ironically, avoid fires.

“If (people) have lost power at home, if they don’t have a good plan for how are they going to stay warm — whether they retreat to a certain room and just try to keep that one room warm — we will see people pull in charcoal grills,” Newton said, “and then we have carbon monoxide poisoning, especially as you get several days into it.”

Bad ice storms might also knock down power lines, transformers and trees near or onto homes, which could then catch fire once the power turns back on. And of course, the county has to deal with slick roads and black ice — conditions which can both strand travelers and impede medical emergencies.

“We see more on the interstates where we’ll have large numbers of people that the cars come stranded, and then they may have to effect rescues on the highway,” Newton said. “... We try to find four-wheel drive vehicles, we’ll leverage National Guard and Humvees and LMTVs [Light Medium Tactical Vehicles] … the large military transport vehicles just perform better in those conditions.”

In other extreme weather conditions, people may seek shelter for warmth and electricity, especially households with members dependent on medical equipment like oxygen concentrators. But COVID, of course, has made that a bit more difficult.

“In the course of the last two years, we also have to weigh in: what is the lesser of two evils?” Newton said. “You know, our traditional route would be we’d open up a shelter or warming center at a facility that has a generator, and everybody can be safe there. But with COVID being ongoing, it still may not be the safest option to bring those people together.”

Getting and sharing information

So, how do they prepare for such situations? First things first — gather information, and then disseminate it to county departments, public safety agencies, community partners and the public days before the storm even arrives.

Usually, Newton said, his department will receive notice three to five days in advance that a storm may be coming. From there, staff begin to monitor the forecast and participate in weather briefings with the U.S. National Weather Service in Raleigh as well as preparedness briefings with N.C. Emergency Management’s central branch office.

Then they’ll distribute that information. Besides a long list of community partners, Chatham Emergency Management maintains a joint Facebook page with the county’s 911 emergency communications department (username: @Chatham911).

“Some good portion of our effort days into an event like (an ice storm) is pushing out information of the do’s and don’ts as best we can,” Newton said. “Ideally, we push that out several days prior before people lose their ability to charge their phones, things like that.”

A lot of that information is in Spanish, too — something, Newton added, that the department has been working to improve. About 13.6% of Chatham’s population is Hispanic, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

A few days ahead of both winter storms, Chatham Emergency Management’s Facebook page published graphics with general safety and forecast information in English and Spanish, the latter of which comes primarily from the state’s emergency management department.

During and after storms, however, it’s a little different.

“We still are challenged with, you know, if I have new unique information that I’m pushing out right now, I don’t have a reliable thing in place that allows me to immediately translate (it) where I would feel comfortable with it,” he said. “We’re not going to use Google Translate just to push something out and it be wrong.”

In such situations, organizations like Siler City’s Hispanic Liaison will often pick up and translate such alerts; other times, county translators will turn the news around and department staff will send out the translated alerts some time after they released the information in English.

“(Another) challenge for us is making sure that it reaches that community,” Newton said. “ … most of the stuff on really all of our Facebook pages tend to be in English, and so, they’re probably not followed by somebody with limited English proficiency or (who) just feels more comfortable speaking Spanish.”

‘Have it in place’

About a day or two before a storm’s expected to arrive, department staff begin moving trailers of equipment into place, including fixed or portable generators, light towers or other sheltering tools.

“Ideally, we’ll have it in place, whether we even think that we’ll use it or not,” Newton said. “We just try to preposition it, so we’re not having to struggle with it during the actual storm itself.”

Should the need arise, Chatham Emergency Management and the American Red Cross have identified a list of buildings across Chatham County which can act as shelter in severe weather.

“Whether it’s our senior centers or a school, in general, we would announce that day which facility and what time it would open,” Newton said. “But usually, before the storm, we have some idea of which facilities we think we’re going to use, and so that’s where we’ll stage equipment.”

During and after the initial storm, the department will continue to share “actionable” information about road conditions and other hazards via Facebook and sometimes their alert system called “ALERT Chatham,” which people can sign up online.

“Then we’ll ride it out until impact,” Newton said, “and ... once impact happens, we do whatever we need to do to try to get back to normal.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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