07/21/08 — Mount Olive pilots plan to prepare for emergencies

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Mount Olive pilots plan to prepare for emergencies

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 21, 2008 1:40 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- The town of Mount Olive is a pilot project for a program that hopes to help small towns be better-prepared to deal with disasters.

Communities in Crisis is a program based in Clayton that has worked with Mount Olive College to develop plans for small towns struck by floods, tornadoes, chemical spills or other sudden crises.

Progress has been slow and deliberate and Town Manager Charles Brown said it has been so on purpose.

"We don't want people to be impatient. We want to do it the right way when we do it," Brown said. "I'd rather have it right than quick. The worst thing we could do is get people counting on us for something and when the chips are down realize we promised them something we cannot deliver."

The program got under way about a year ago, when Brown and then Mayor Ruff Huggins were approached by Dr. Chris Dyer of Mount Olive College and Deborah Dunn, one of the founders of Community in Crisis.

Dyer, dean of arts and sciences at Mount Olive College, is the organization's board chairman and grant writer. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina provided the organization's first major grant funding.

"They had gotten some grant funding," Brown said. "Their approach to us was would we consider partnering with them working to make Mount Olive sort of a pilot for a disaster-resilient community.

"Their concept was not to try to replace the National Guard or Red Cross or any other relief agencies that might come to help out after a disaster, but to try to set up a program to prepare citizens of small towns -- most under 10,000 in population -- to be more self-sufficient should they be forced to deal with a crisis."

Brown emphasized that the program is not intended to supplant any county emergency program already in place.

"We are not talking about trying to supplement or replace Wayne County Emergency Services," he said. "But if they came to town and told us that a certain portion of town needed to be evacuated we would like to hope that we could make a difference in getting those people prepared to be more self-sufficient and comfortable should they have to go to shelter for period of time."

The planing process includes an assessment of resources the town could draw upon, such as Mount Olive Family Medicine Center, and people who would be willing to help move food and medical supplies.

"The idea also is to go out and identify the at-risk portions of your population -- people who because of age, health, economics or language might have a more difficult time dealing with a disaster than some other portions of the population," Brown said.

The goal would be to provide them with the information and tools to help them be more self-sufficient, he said, and to be in position to help others.

One idea is to have block captains who would be responsible for communicating with other people on their block, finding out what sort of special needs they have, Brown said.

"It would neighbors getting out and meeting each other," he said. "If we didn't accomplish one thing except to get people out of their houses and meet their next-door neighbor then I would consider it probably a success."

The town's first step is preparation of letters for everyone in the community who is 65 and older about a voluntary sign-up program. The senior citizens would be included in a town database identifying residents who have health issues, or would need special assistance if an evacuation was ordered.

"We'd like to start establishing a list of those individual and start locating them on our maps," Brown said.

Members of the District 1 Community Watch already have been doing just that, Brown said.

David Armstrong, president of the community watch, said the organization is more than just about crime prevention. He said the group's members also are aware that some older residents have health problems and cannot maintain their yards. The organization has a clean-up crew that cleans the neighborhood once a month and checks on elderly residents.

Brown said his office is coordinating with local police and fire to ensure that any promised services can be delivered.

The program doesn't stop with senior citizens.

"It applies to everyone," Brown said. "If someone knocks on your door at 2 o'clock in the morning and says you need to go to shelter would you know what to take with you or would you have it readily at hand?

"We want to try to let everybody know what would be helpful to have if they had to leave their house and go to shelter for three days -- like snacks, flashlight, battery-operated radio, change of clothes and important documents."

One problem people ran into after Hurricane Katrina was that they knew they used to have a lot and house, but they didn't have any documents to prove it, Brown said. He said emergency officials strongly recommended that people place important papers, or at least copies, in water-tight containers along with "comfort items" like snacks, water, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.

"You could grab that and be reasonably prepared to weather a few days' stay in a shelter," he said.

The idea is if the planning works for Mount Olive it could be packaged with some training videos for other small towns across the country, Brown said.

"Their goals are more ambitious than mine," he said. "My focus is to work on Mount Olive and get Mount Olive to that point and if they can use it as pilot then so much the better for them."