CFS Press

This article appeared in the September 24th issue
of the Raleigh News & Observer

Its Time to Overhaul North Carolina's
Flood Response System 

by Slim Ray

Many people, most lately Governor Hunt, have praised the grit and determination of North Carolinians in a pinch. It's a good thing, too, since the state's record of rescuing them has not always been the best. Strangely, we seem to be more concerned with saving property than lives. We have spent a great deal of money on flood relief but, even after losing 52 people, little on improving flood rescue capabilities. With hurricanes again creeping up the coast, this problem needs a hard look and some immediate solutions, among which the most pressing are:

    · Local agencies—the people on the spot—need to be trained and equipped for moving water rescue. Just after the floods several rescue agencies acknowledged the need for flood and swiftwater rescue training. While the State Fire Marshall's office is developing such a program, it is still not in place. In addition, there are legitimate concerns about their expertise to develop their own program rather than using existing ones.

Others are out there, too. During the floods untrained and unequipped DOT crews and National Guardsmen were sent into areas that state emergency managers deemed too dangerous for trained swiftwater teams. Two DOT workers drowned, and the Guard nearly lost several soldiers. Even though a recent CDC report noted that ten percent of the fatalities during Floyd were rescue workers, I've seen no programs put in place to prevent this happening again.

    · We need better and more proactive management at the state level. North Carolina consistently does a poor job of getting trained rescuers to where they need to be in the initial stages of a large-scale flood disaster, which is when the most casualties occur.

One reason is divided command. Due to a political horse trade a number of years ago, standards and training for rescue are the responsibility of the Office of the State Fire Marshall (OSFM), part of the Department of Insurance, while actual management of disasters falls under NC Emergency Management, part of the Department of Public Safety and Crime Control. In a big disaster there are plenty of other agencies involved also, including the National Guard, Department of Transportation, Highway Patrol and local rescue agencies. Although in theory they are supposed to coordinate their efforts, in practice they seldom do. In one particularly egregious incident during Hurricane Floyd, DOT crews waved returning motorists into flooded areas on I40, from whence they then had to be rescued (one drowned).

Someone needs to have the final say. We need to dispense with "resource coordinators" and institute a statewide incident command system responsible directly to the governor. Emergency managers at all levels need to be better trained in flood rescue (as opposed to relief) operations.

    ·We need faster rescue mobilization. Swiftwater rescue teams in the western part of the state were not deployed until three days after the storm had passed. Although Emergency Management was, per statute, supposed to be running the show, the Fire Marshall's office (part of DOI) oversaw the actual mobilization. Since OSFM was not familiar with the resource manual developed by NCEM, there were delays and confusion in the mobilization process.

There were also problems with weather predictions. Although forecasts of flooding were fairly accurate, they did not seem to get down to the people actually making the decisions.

    ·State emergency managers need to take a more decisive role earlier in large-scale disasters. State managers showed an extraordinary reluctance to intervene at county level. Although NCEM has statutory authority to manage rescue operations in counties after the governor declares a state of emergency, in practice the policy has been "we can't do anything until they ask us." This wait and see attitude prevented an early mobilization and produced a situation in which there were 37 separate floods with very little overall coordination. By the time outside teams were mobilized, the roads were under water.

All these factors virtually guaranteed a slow, reactive response during the first 24 hours of this regional disaster. Had it not been for the prompt and fortunate intervention of the military with their fleets of helicopters, the death toll would undoubtedly have been much higher. On the other hand, I believe that if the response had been handled in a more proactive manner, the number of casualties could have been substantially reduced.

Floods—the top weather-related killer worldwide—are not going away. Forecasters tell us that severe weather is getting worse, and that we are entering a much more active hurricane cycle. Historically the worst disasters in this state, and the greatest loss of life, have been from inland hurricane-induced floods, not storm surge.

The state response system is broken. Let's fix it before any more lives are lost.

Slim Ray is President/CEO of CFS Press (, which specializes in books on flood and swiftwater rescue. He has over twenty years experience on moving water; including stints as a raft guide; canoe/kayak instructor; and rescue instructor for Rescue 3 International. Ray has authored several books on the subject including Swiftwater Rescue and River Rescue.

© Slim Ray 2000 All rights reserved

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