CH@T: Prepping for hurricanes is just part of this department’s year-round work

Newton: ‘Preparedness is everyone’s responsibility, not just government’

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Hurricane season, which officially began June 1, could be a busy one. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is predicting an above-average year for storms. Storm prep is one of the jobs that Chatham County’s Emergency Management department handles, so this week we spoke with Steve Newton, who’s served as its director since 2017.

Newton is also the vice chairperson of the N.C. Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee and serves on the N.C. Domestic Preparedness Readiness Region 6 Emergency Management Subcommittee. He’s also been a member of the Harris Nuclear Plant Taskforce for 14 years.

He holds a master’s degree in Emergency Management from Jacksonville State University and has participated in 22 federally declared disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, building collapse and dam failures.

Let’s start with preparations for hurricane season, which began June 1. The NOAA forecast for 2022 calls for another above-average year in terms of storm activity, with between six and 10 storms reaching hurricane strength. What special preparations are you and your staff making for the season, which officially stretches through Nov. 30?

It only takes one storm making its way to Chatham County to be a disaster, so we approach most hurricane seasons the same. We meet with our community partners, confirm our emergency plans, check our generators, facilities and sheltering supplies, and start closely monitoring tropical weather. We also met with the National Weather Service Raleigh, National Hurricane Center, N.C. Dept. of Transportation, broadcast media, and Emergency Managers on June 2 to review current climate conditions, new severe weather reporting tools and formats, and improvements to predicting inland flooding.

How do you advise the rest of us prepare for the potentiality of a hurricane impacting here?

Everyone should take steps now, before the next storm develops, to prepare themselves, their family, pets, and businesses, for a storm resulting in extended power outages, blocked roads, or damage requiring an insurance claim. Make a plan and share it with family members. Build an Emergency Kit for you, your family, and your pets. Stay informed through local media, trusted sources like the National Weather Service, and by registering for weather alerts. Check on your neighbors before and after a severe weather event or other emergency. Visit readychatham.org or readync.gov for more information on preparing for disasters and to register for weather alerts.

We’ve experienced our fair share of flooding in Chatham County the last few years, so your department has had lots of practice responding. What particularly have you learned through that to help you respond when the waters rise?

The most important lesson is to stay out of flood water.

In North Carolina, the most lives are lost after hurricanes from inland freshwater flooding. Most of these tend to be from people driving their vehicles into high water or cars being swept away by rapidly rising rivers and streams. Six inches of fast-moving flood water will knock over an adult. Twelve inches of rushing water will carry away most cars.

The COVID pandemic is now more than two years with us. How much of your work and your department’s work these days is impacted by COVID, or includes COVID-related tasks?

This February we finally reached the stage where we no longer needed to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other supplies on a daily or weekly basis. Chatham County Emergency Management still receives occasional requests from our community partners for a small amount of PPE if their normal shipment is delayed and they are dealing with COVID-19 cases. The risks associated with the ongoing pandemic continue to guide our plans and strategies, especially when considering how to safely shelter evacuees in a congregate setting like a school or community center.

Much of your work involves training and planning and collaborating with a variety of partners, including state and federal government and private industry. Can you share a few major projects that you’ve been focusing on?

We are always engaged in a wide range of projects and partnerships. One area of focus over the last few weeks has been with the NC Department of Transportation, fire departments, and EMS, as NCDOT starts planning for future traffic and development in southeastern Chatham County (Moncure).

At the same time, we supported a series of training exercises with the US Army on Jordan Lake along with the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and local swift water rescue teams. We’ve also continued to meet with local stakeholders to develop and pursue strategies to prevent and respond to opioid overdoses in the community. We’ve also started to prepare for our next series of FEMA-evaluated nuclear plant exercises.

Our largest project at this moment is the construction of the new Emergency Operations and 9-1-1 Center, which we hope to move into next March, a month before our next nuclear plant exercise.

What else do people in Chatham County need to know about the work you do?

Preparedness is everyone’s responsibility, not just government. Our whole community must take on the shared responsibility of keeping our community resilient. This includes individuals, businesses, churches, schools, media, government, and others.

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