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Are you prepared for hurricane season? 

by Jessica Wells, League Communications Specialist

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, North Carolina and three other southern states lead the nation in the number of billion-dollar weather-related disasters since 1980. While most of that damage comes from coastal communities, the Department recommends all towns to have an emergency plan in place and rehearsed during hurricane season.

Emerald Isle Town Manager Frank Rush said they expect about three significant storms each year and a few close brushes that kick them into high gear.

"Whether they predict 15 or 20 storms, however many it is, the only one that matters is the one that hits you," Rush said.

The Town of Emerald Isle spends a considerable amount of time and resources to ensure staff and residents are prepared when a natural disaster occurs. For the past 10 years, Rush has set up pre-positioned debris collection contracts for structural and vegetative waste before hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Having the contract prepared ahead of time saves time and stress by ensuring a contractor will be on-site within 24 hours of the storm and almost guarantees compliance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regulations for reimbursement.

The town also sets up pre-positioned contracts for emergency generators and rental stormwater pumps in case of flooding.

"If a storm comes, it’s great to have," he said. "If a storm doesn’t come, we just don’t activate the contract, and there’s no cost associated with it."

From a long-term planning perspective, the town heavily invested in beach nourishment to protect oceanfront structures, reduce storm damage and preserve the recreational beaches that draw thousands of tourists each year. Rush said it’s because of nourishment that the town hasn’t experienced excessive structural damage from flooding since the 90s.

However, to protect Emerald Isle areas that experience chronic flooding annually, the town spent upwards of $5 million to install several fixed stormwater pumps that pump excess water to a property that doubles as a town nature park.

"In the areas where we have pumps, it’s really made all the difference in the world," Rush said. "We pretty much don’t have problems at those locations anymore. Hopefully we will do more in the next year or so."

Rush and Mike Sprayberry, director of the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, agree that communication with residents and homeowners is just as important as the logistical planning.

In Emerald Isle, staff communicates with local residents through frequent web and email updates before, during and after the storm. Since many Emerald Isle property owners livesomewhere else, it’s important to keep them updated on damages and evacuation decisions. Rush said the town also collaborates with other towns on the Bogue Banks on evacuation and reentry decisions.

According to Sprayberry, encouraging residents to adopt personal preparedness kits and emergency plans is a crucial part of emergency planning, and he suggests directing residents to http://www.Ready NC.org to see what items should be in an emergency kit.

He also recommends reviewing your emergency operations plan quarterly or even monthly.

"Not everybody needs to do that, but a few key leaders need to know where the book is located on the computer, so when the balloon goes up, they’ll know what their roles and responsibilities are," he said.

While Sprayberry’s department mainly works with county officials, he recognizes the important role municipalities play in disaster response. All seven regional response teams for hazardous materials and 10 urban search and rescue teams in the state are funded by his department and based out of municipalities. The search and rescue teams have been called out for several disasters across the state and nationwide, including Hurricane Irene, the 2011 tornadoes and Hurricane Sandy in Maryland.

"All disasters begin and end locally. To us, that’s the municipalities," Sprayberry said. "They are the backbone and core of how we respond to disasters in North Carolina."

To help municipalities across the state prepare for hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding and other disasters, the League and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners developed http://www.ReadyNCLocal.org, a website with information about what to do before and after disasters.

"All of the counties I go to understand hurricanes don’t just hit the coast. Predominately, they do, but, if you lived in Clinton in 1996, you got hit very hard by Fran. In 2004, if you were in the mountains of western North Carolina, you got hit by the hurricanes that came up from the gulf and created a lot of flooding. We all remember Hurricane Hugo that hit Charlotte and dealt them a severe blow," Sprayberry said.

A version of this article ran in Southern City in June 2013.