Hurricane Offers Opportunity for Students to Help, and to Observe Local Government Response to Emergency

Second-year student Jake Pflepsen (left), first-year student David Goldberg (rear), and faculty member Norma Houston with "Sandy," a dog rescued by the trio during Hurricane Irene.

As Hurricane Irene moved ominously closer to the North Carolina coast on Thursday, August 25, faculty member Norma Houston was in the Dare County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Houston had formerly served as Dare County Attorney and is an expert in emergency management law. On Thursday evening, at the invitation of the Dare County Emergency Management Coordinator and Dare County Manager, Houston called her research assistant, first-year student David Goldberg, and former research assistant, second-year student Jake Pflepsen. Eager to help and grateful for the opportunity, both students were in Manteo by Friday morning.

Pflepsen had previously met Dare County Emergency Management Coordinator N.H. “Sandy” Sanderson at the 2011 North Carolina Emergency Management Association conference, where they “bonded over our marine rescue experience.” Pflepsen worked for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department as a lifeguard EMT and is NIMS-certified (National Incident Command System).

Emergency Management: A Close-Up Look

For the next couple of days during and immediately after Hurricane Irene, the students lived inside the Dare County EOC, primarily observing the management of a complex emergency situation. “The EOC is the nerve center of emergency management,” says Pflepsen. “At its heart was a room for the Control Group, a body of local elected representatives; the Cape Hatteras National Seashore superintendent Mike Murray; County Manager Bobby Outten; the county’s finance director, David Clawson; and emergency management and information technology support. Adjacent to the Control Group room was a large room of support functions, with top-level representatives from the National Park Service and US Fish & Wildlife Service, the state, and the county (think: schools, highway patrol, public health, fire marshal, Department of Transportation, EMS, etc). Also located on the floor were public information staff, who are responsible for issuing timely and accurate public information and coordinating media.”

A Chance to Contribute

The students also assisted as needed with various tasks, including:

  • Running numbers analysis to determine debris levels, in order to better prepare for post-storm debris removal
  • Checking laws and ordinances to confirm legal authorities for various emergency actions
  • Assisting with computer-based modeling and asset requests
  • Accompanying the Public Works director on drive-by assessments in early hours of the storm
  • Manning an emergency hotline. “Most calls were from people wanting to know when evacuation orders would be lifted,” says Pflepsen, “but I fielded several calls from people whose homes had been destroyed. The hotline was their first call.”

A Late-Night Rescue

After two long days at work, Houston, Pflepsen, and Goldberg left the EOC late Saturday night, but due to high waters, eventually were forced to head back to the Center. On their way back, says Pflepsen, “a wet, distressed dog stood in the way of our vehicle.” As the trio got out of the car to check on the dog, a transformer exploded nearby. “Quickly, we loaded the animal into the car and proceeded back to the EOC, where  we spent the night in the County Jail.” Prisoners had been evacuated and government employees had secured the space for the duration of the emergency. In the morning, the dog, nicknamed Sandy (after Sandy Sanderson), was admitted to the Dare County Animal Shelter after having waited by the front door of the jail throughout the night.