10/07/07 — Is city going to be ready if a hurricane hits?

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Is city going to be ready if a hurricane hits?

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on October 7, 2007 2:22 AM

Carlton Parks can tell you what a hurricane might leave in its wake.

The Goldsboro Fire Department captain was one of the few on the streets after Hurricane Floyd left much of the city under water.

"It was bad -- flooded everywhere," he recalls. "We were out just trying to help people out of their houses."

Responding to a natural disaster is tricky business, Parks added.

Even "local heroes" would be limited.

"The only thing you can do is go as far as you can with the truck," Parks said. "If you go further than you need to go, something might happen to you. And then what?"

Storms still have the potential to form in the Atlantic with a little more than a month left in hurricane season.

An August windstorm blew the roof off an occupied building and left damage and trees down all over the city.

But Goldsboro's first responders say if "weather events" come again, they would continue to do all they can to help local residents endure them.

Police Maj. Mike Hopper said city departments keep in touch with county officials as a hurricane approaches.

"We're in close contact with the Emergency Operations Center, Mel Powers and them," he said. "When they start getting ready to activate a command post, you know, tracking the storm, that is when we start getting up with officers. For the ones we know are going to be working, they need to be confident that their family is taken care of. They don't need the distraction."

Fire Chief Alvin Ward said he would prepare his team in much the same way - upping the number of firefighters on duty from 25 to more than 50.

And then the storm hits.

Responders admit that if a Category 5 were to hit, their response would be limited until the winds ease up.

"We're going to be out in the storm but once the wind gets up to 50 mph or more, our guys are going to stage in parts of the city," Hopper said. "We learned after Floyd that with rising water, different zones are cut off. Unless there is an emergency call, they are going to park their car until it is safe to get out there in the wind again."

Ward agreed. The safety of his men is a top priority, even during a disaster.

"We would actually go and assess the situation at that point," he said. "Now, if there is an emergency, like an actual structure fire that we felt like we could get to in the storm, our safety is still No. 1, but we are going to be there for the citizens as much as we can."

And then they prioritize.

"Power lines down -- that is all over the city. You're talking about a population of 39,000 to 40,000 people -- 24 square miles. That's a lot to cover," Ward said. "Now a tree on a house, that is important. We're going to that. Structure fire call -- we're going to that."

And when firefighters arrive, they will likely see police already at the scene.

"Most of the time, we're already there," police Capt. John Biggins said. "They are coming out because we have called them out."

The team effort really does pay off, he added.

"Each (hurricane) is a learning experience," he said. "We look back at Fran and Floyd and I think we did a great job, having not been through one. From that point, we have gained. As each one comes, we get better."

And so do the citizens, Hopper added.

"I think Wayne County is really blessed with the people they have," he said. "It seems to me that when you have a bad situation, it seems to bring out the best in people -- law enforcement, fire, rescue and the public. People that don't know each other, when someone's life is in jeopardy, they pull together."

But despite past successes in disaster response, Hopper urged residents to take care of themselves and their neighbors as much as they can.

You never know how the conditions might affect response time, he said.

"Sometimes, we have to kind of reinforce that," he said. "You always have that section of the public that doesn't listen to the TV or radio. They might wait it out until the last minute."

Other residents might be too old to help themselves during a storm.

So before and after one hits, responders check on them and offer assistance.

"We try to check on the elderly and anyone who can't get out," Hopper said.

It is a tireless job for both police and fire officials, preparing and cleaning up after a storm like ones passed.

Ward and Hopper agree that if another does come, their crews will not rest until order is restored in the city, and its citizens safe.

"We are not super-heroes but we are going to do all we can to serve the public," Ward said.

Hopper agrees.

"For several hours we are going call after call after call," he said. "You never know how long you are going to be working. It could be one or two days before you get to go home and see your family."