Weathering the storm

They were on full alert in the building just off City/County Plaza that houses Asheville’s Police and Fire departments. Preparing for the worst, extra staff was on board, equipment was at the ready, and the Emergency Operations Command Center had its supplemental communications systems fired up. In short, both departments were on standby for disaster.

Only a test: Members of the Asheville Fire Department’s HAZMAT team — one among many components of the region’s disaster-response system to see upgrades in recent years. Photo By Jonathan Welch

The cause? One of the Southeast’s biggest outdoor festivals.

“We run a full-scale [emergency] operation for Bele Chere,” fire Chief Greg Grayson explains. “It’s our biggest drill of the year.”

And indeed, Bele Chere has a lot in common with a natural disaster: an increased and exposed population, choked traffic corridors, and an increased potential for injury in tandem with more limited access to victims. This year, notes Grayson, there were 48 emergency calls specific to the festival, which ran July 25-27. That makes it a good excuse to test his department’s ability to deal with critical situations.

“It allows us to exercise all these pieces of equipment and personnel,” he says.

Disaster documents in The Xpress Files

There cannot be a region-wide disaster-response system without a hefty stack of documents spelling it out. In The Xpress Files, this newspaper’s online archive of government records, you can find several of the key plans and documents from this story, including disaster-preparation manuals for citizens and elected officials and Buncombe County’s emergency-management plan. You can also read the program from Mayor Terry Bellamy’s visit to the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives roundtable and the after-action report from the recent pandemic-influenza exercise. See the documents at

But the Bele Chere drill isn’t the only local place where worst-case scenarios are being considered. All around the Asheville area, organizations and agencies are stepping up their efforts to enhance existing services, add new capabilities and run tests to see how well prepared we really are.

Despite the confusion surrounding the national threat-level assessment system—and the resulting tendency to simply ignore it—bad things do happen. The 9/11 attacks were the impetus for both the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and much of the federal assistance that’s currently available to local governments through that agency. The anthrax attacks soon after highlighted the possibility of such threats and led to the formation of state-controlled response teams. Avian-flu outbreaks across the Pacific sparked an upgrade in our local ability to handle pandemics.

Meanwhile, various local events have provided reminders that even way up here in the mountains, we’re not immune to emergencies. In 2004, the floods resulting from back-to-back hurricanes devastated riverside property and wiped out water service for days. And new maps released by the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety last year show an even bigger floodplain today, due to continuing development along river corridors. That means more and more buildings (and therefore people) are now within reach of high water.

Still, the biggest local disaster scenario in recent memory remains the blizzard of 1993, says Jerry VeHaun, Buncombe County’s longtime director of emergency services. Dropping nearly 20 inches of snow in its first few hours, the massive storm not only knocked out utilities but also stranded everyone—including emergency personnel.

“You couldn’t go anywhere,” VeHaun recalls. “For two or three days, anyone who was at work or somewhere else, you were stuck there.” Once the National Guard arrived on the scene, Humvees handled critical transport of people and supplies. But organizing that kind of response takes time.

More recently, Hurricane Katrina prompted communities nationwide to take a hard look at their own level of emergency preparedness. The 2005 storm that devastated the Gulf Coast provided a graphic—and tragic—example of the limits of federal emergency response. In short, when disaster strikes, we’re on our own, at least for a while.

“We are told to prepare for three days before federal assistance,” notes Grayson. “Do we have all the resources we need for an emergency? No. But neither does Charlotte.”

You gotta have faith

Back in May, Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy headed to Washington, D.C., to attend a White House conference hosted by the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The agency holds regular Compassion in Action policy roundtables designed to address issues concerning the faith-based and nonprofit communities while highlighting their contributions. This one was titled “Partnerships in Emergency Preparation.”

Introduced by President Bush in 2001, the push to fund faith-based programs with federal money sparked criticism and even legal challenges; opponents branded it a breach of the separation of church and state.

But for Bellamy, who makes no secret of her own spiritual side, the faith-based community shouldn’t be ignored as a resource for disaster relief. Houses of worship can provide emergency shelter and are often already versed in providing services such as food distribution. Better networking, the mayor maintains, would enhance the resources Asheville already has while spotlighting weak points.

“We have a lot of churches; I would like to pull them together,” says Bellamy. In the aftermath of Katrina, she notes, the city was called upon to house its share of refugees. “Asheville was ready to receive them, but we had to scramble around to find places. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say, ‘St. Joe’s has 100 beds?’”

That’s precisely the kind of thinking the federal agency is trying to encourage.

“America’s nonprofit community is critical, especially in disaster scenarios,” says spokesperson Rebecca Neale. The May conference sought to promote partnerships involving governments, houses of worship and other nonprofits.

Community groups, she points out, often have volunteers already lined up, alleviating one of the more complex logistical problems in an emergency.

“In a time of disaster, connecting with volunteers can be a challenge, depending on the situation on the ground,” notes Neale.

In addition, nonprofits may be more streamlined than big government entities. “Our local nonprofits’ chains of command are often ‘me and my supervisor,’” says Executive Director Bill Bradley of the Asheville-based Hearts With Hands. “A lot of the larger agencies, it can take days before they can do anything.”

To that end, the faith-based nonprofit teaches organizations and individuals how to handle disasters, conducting regular seminars in places such as nursing homes and university campuses. But the organization’s primary mission is allocating donations and volunteers to the groups that can best use them in emergency-relief situations. Bradley’s group has already reached out to the local nonprofit community; the next step, he maintains, will be bringing private businesses into the loop.

Man with a plan: Buncombe’s long-time director of emergency services, Jerry VeHaun, has pressed for many of the recent updgrades in disaster-response systems. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Meanwhile, groups such as the North Carolina chapter of Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster are undertaking larger-scale coordination efforts statewide.

But while Bellamy says she’s ready and willing to help push for federal funding for the local faith-based community, she’s also hoping to secure more Homeland Security money for the city. The amount of federal funding available is in constant flux due to changing methods of distribution, but Bellamy says she’s had conference calls with the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, trying to keep the doors open—and “to put us on FEMA’s radar.”

During large-scale disasters, the mayor maintains, urban centers have to be able to handle the influx of displaced residents from outlying communities—and in this particular region, that center is Asheville.

“Asheville is the place for resources for Western North Carolina,” she notes. “We should be a hub for that kind of thing. It is important that [Homeland Security] makes investments in cities.”

Stepping it up

In June, Buncombe County activated its new, $2 million state-of-the art emergency-dispatch center near Leicester. Dating back to the late 1800s, the red-brick building has also served stints as a National Guard training center and a senior citizens’ home. It sits in a quasi-rural area, and the lobby’s motley décor features Cold War-era emergency equipment, an antique piano found in the attic—and even a suit of armor. A couple of staffers wander from room to room, and the atmosphere seems more suited to an eccentric country doctor’s office or a Euro-themed country inn. Then VeHaun walks up to a door in the basement and passes a card through a security scanner.

Inside, it’s like NORAD in miniature: Large, flat-screen computer monitors line the walls of a windowless room, and desk after desk holds additional six-panel screens. Together, they form the heart of the county’s new communications system. At each desk, a dispatcher speaks into a headset while pulling up needed data.

VeHaun gazes around the room with an obvious air of satisfaction. “I’ve been with the county 35-and-a-half years,” he notes, adding, “I’ve talked about this probably 25 of those.”

The idea, says VeHaun, is to get dispatchers from every emergency-response agency in the county in the same room to facilitate improved communication. Most are now on hand, and still more are coming, he reports—including an Asheville Police Department dispatcher.

In the past, a 911 call would go to a central dispatcher who then routed it to the proper station. Now, however, everyone in the room is aware of a call, and they can even fill in for one another if needed. In a large-scale emergency situation involving multiple departments, that kind of streamlined communication will be critical, says VeHaun, adding, “This is definitely going to improve reaction time.”

Chris Webb, a dispatcher for Buncombe County EMS, takes a call, and one of his monitors displays a GIS map of the location. After sending an ambulance to the scene, he turns and surveys the room. “It’s a great thing having everyone in the room,” says Webb. “We’ve not missed a link; we’ve not missed a beat.”

Dialing for dollars

The compound also boasts a fleet of emergency vehicles ranging from four-wheelers to a mobile command center. Homeland Security funding channeled through the state paid for most of them, notes VeHaun. That money, however, requires congressional approval, and recently, less has been handed out each year. It’s also competitive, meaning no community is a shoo-in.

H.Q.: Dispatcher Chris Webb mans his station in Buncombe County’s new high-tech emergencycommunications center. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Further complicating matters is the fact that this year, for the first time, the funding will be awarded regionally rather than county by county. As a result, agencies across WNC’s 19 counties (an area of North Carolina known collectively as Region 6) will have to team up to have the best chance of securing funds. In the next fiscal year, $16 million will be coming to the state, says VeHaun, but there’s no way to know yet how much of it will be heading west.

In late July, the heads of all Region 6 agencies sat down together to begin hammering out the optimum strategy for snaring funds. At press time, the group had additional meetings planned for Aug. 15 and Sept. 5, said Grayson, noting, “We have to agree on the items we’re going to push for.”

But for his part, VeHaun says he liked it better when each county secured its own money. “This is too big a region,” he complains. “People in Boone don’t have anything in common with people in Murphy.”

Not that regional relationships aren’t important. Fire and EMS response teams, for example, maintain mutual agreements to respond across jurisdictional boundaries as needed. Locally, that means that Asheville and Buncombe County, say, will lend each other a hand. But to cross county lines, local agencies must be deployed by state officials.

And here too, notes Grayson, it has to be a two-way street. “If we ask for help, we have to be willing to give help” to other areas in need, he emphasizes.

Asheville is also the base of operations for the regional hazardous-materials response team, while Buncombe County is home to the Public Health Regional Surveillance Team, which handles disease outbreaks in the state’s 19 westernmost counties.

In April, the Buncombe County Health Department teamed up with the surveillance team and more than 100 other entities in Western North Carolina, including Mission Hospitals, to conduct a drill simulating the distribution of medicine during a pandemic. Trucks carrying dummy boxes of medicine from confidential stockpile locations maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived in the county. Strategy meetings were held, and teams were deployed to distribute the boxes. There was even a mock press conference, with public-information officers from around the region acting as media reps.

The drill also considered security for the trucks and locations handling medicines. “In an emergency, there’s going to be a lot of scared people out there, so security is important,” says Chris Emory, an epidemiologist with the Buncombe County Health Department. Emory, who coordinated the test, said that while it spotlighted areas where more training is needed to facilitate efficient distribution throughout other counties, overall the day was a success.

DIY disaster management

Even as various agencies fish for funding to enhance their systems, the word from all involved is that individuals must also prepare themselves. Because in a pinch, even local help could be slow in coming.

Wake-up call: In the area’s worst natural disaster in recent years, floods submerged Biltmore Village, above, and other parts of WNC in 2004. Xpress File Photo

“If there’s a message, it’s personal responsibility” says Martha Salyers of the regional public-health team. “We’ve really learned not to be self-sufficient. We need to return to a sense of being responsible for ourselves.”

Several times, Bellamy has made on-camera pleas at the end of City Council meetings, urging residents to assemble a kit containing important documents (in case they have to flee their homes) and survival rations (in case services are cut off).

But when it comes to disasters, we tend to have short memories. “That’s a tough nut to crack,” Bellamy notes. “People don’t think that it will happen to them.” The mayor encourages residents to consult, a federal government Web site, for help in determining what to do. The site covers everything from identification and bank records to water-and-food needs.

Meanwhile, the Asheville Fire Department’s new alert system is designed to automatically call city residents during emergencies. Recent tests of the system reached 70 percent of the people called, says Grayson, most of them on land lines. Now a new push is on to add cell phones to the database. The system has since been tweaked to keep track of the numbers where contact wasn’t made and make follow-up calls. Continued tests are intended to keep the population on its toes—or at least aware that disaster can strike.

Grayson has also put together a booklet for the city’s elected officials. Politicians, he notes, rotate in and out of office, but they’re still responsible for acting promptly and effectively when disaster strikes. Since he assembled that information in 2006, he says, several other citites have used it as a resource model.

In the meantime, Grayson and others are posting emergency strategies online and printing pamphlets and fliers—both to educate the public and for their own use as reference points during an emergency. That strategy reflects the universal message preached by all emergency-response agencies: We all need to be prepared to temporarily handle disasters on our own while we wait for help to arrive.

“No plan is perfect,” Salyers notes—and even when things are running smoothly, there’s still a need to keep making adjustments.

Meanwhile, amid all the energy response teams are expending to stay ready themselves, they’re also painfully aware of the challenge of keeping ordinary people on their toes.

“That’s a major problem for us,” VeHaun reports. “To keep people aware that disasters can happen at any time.”


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2 thoughts on “Weathering the storm

  1. Matt Mercy

    I heard somewhere that what these DHS regional threat-fusion centers are really for is to protect the foreign-owned infrastructure from the citizens who, when they find out that the government’s been hijacked and there’s been a long-term plan to bring this nation into slavery and serfdom, are going to be a little angry. My question would be: where are the “Region 6” mass inmate processing centers? Google: “Rex 84”, “Operation Cable-splicer”, “Operation Gardenplot”. These are older programs that have since been updated and renamed under classified directives.

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