Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael have dominated headlines in recent weeks, but emergency management experts know that the lacerating winds, torrential rains, and flooding that accompany hurricanes can strike almost anytime.
These tropical cyclones can wreak havoc on communities—destroying homes, downing power lines, contaminating water supplies—and, in the worst scenarios, may take lives.
How do emergency managers prepare for such events? Scott Kerwood, PhD, is a Capella University faculty member who teaches public service leadership classes and also serves as a fire chief and emergency manager in Texas. Kerwood has helped numerous communities prepare for hurricanes and other weather threats over the years. As Florence bore down on the Atlantic seaboard, he reflected on his experience dealing with the arrival and aftermath of Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Humberto, and Ike, among other storms. “I lost a fire station during Rita,” he says. “You can prepare all you want but, even with a solid plan, the potential for lasting damage is always there.”
Putting a Plan in Place
Hurricane preparedness begins long before the storm makes landfall. Emergency managers are part of a network of that includes local, state, and federal agencies, Kerwood notes. They develop connections with hospitals, utilities, and schools (which often serve as shelters in the event of a hurricane). They lay out a plan for coordinated responses and emergency communications. Who will make decisions during such an emergency? How will resources be shared?
Advance planning for hurricanes involves stockpiling supplies like food, water, and extra gasoline. “The first thing that happens during a hurricane is that you lose power,” Kerwood says.
Community education is also an important part of hurricane preparedness. In areas where tropical storms are frequent, residents are encouraged to make a list of the essentials they need to take with them in the case of an evacuation: “Important papers, prescriptions, anything you might need to survive several days away from home,” Kerwood explains.
Finally, before a hurricane hits, emergency managers try to communicate to residents that—during the storm—law enforcement, ambulances, and fire trucks will be unavailable. “When winds are blowing, you can’t get out there without compromising the safety of your crews,” Kerwood says. “As a manager, you can put first responders in danger.”
Before, During, and After the Storm
In the case of an evacuation, emergency managers coordinate news bulletins, guide traffic, and arrange transportation for people who may not be able to leave affected regions on their own. They also try to keep a list of people who say they intend to stay and weather out the storm.
Afterward, managers return to check on residents who stayed. They coordinate the work of teams that are needed to restore power, test water, repair roads, and clear debris. “Cleaning up and getting things back to normal can take a long time,” Kerwood says. “It can take a full month to shut down the emergency center after a hurricane.”
“It’s very satisfying to help people in crisis, however,” he adds. “It’s an essential part of work in public safety.”
With an advanced degree in emergency management, you’ll learn the skills that help you mitigate an emergency. You’ll learn to prepare a disaster plan that works, communicate the procedures, and establish protocol to prepare for crises. Learn more about Capella University’s emergency management degree programs.