Workshops aim to improve emergency response

by | May 23, 2011

With recent tornadoes in eastern North Carolina, flooding along the Mississippi River and hurricane season almost here, natural disasters are on the minds of many N.C. farmers.

The Emergency Programs Division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is being proactive before the next disaster hits.

“Agriculture is so important to North Carolina’s economy,” said Dr. Karen Beck, surveillance veterinarian for the division. “We want to make sure that we can support the agricultural community during a disaster.”

To better prepare emergency responders, Beck is organizing three regional workshops to address the needs of the agricultural community. The first workshop will be held Tuesday at the WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher. Two remaining workshops will be held at Mt. Olive College in Goldsboro June 7 and N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro June 9. All workshops are made possible through a Department of Homeland Security grant, and will help introduce emergency responders to different resources available for farmers. “Part of what we’ll be doing is trying to get people to understand, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do and this is how we might be able to help in the event of an agricultural disaster,” Beck said.

When a disaster strikes, an agency’s field staff may be the first to respond to the community. While the staff know their communities, they may not know the programs or processes needed to benefit those in need. One of the goals of the workshop is to review available resources following a natural disaster.

The workshops also will cover disasters involving a foreign animal disease, such as foot and mouth disease or bird flu. Last summer, Emergency Programs sponsored a companion series of foot and mouth disease exercises. Lessons learned from those exercises will be shared with workshop participants this spring.”What we’re doing now is taking those lessons from foot and mouth disease exercises and pushing them out to a broader audience that may be involved if that disease hit, but also broaden it to this idea of agricultural disasters in general.”

Participants also will learn about the Animal Health Network and EDEN, two emergency programs managed by N.C. Cooperative Extension. In addition, they will learn about tracking and managing tools offered by the N.C. Division of Emergency Management.

The workshops will provide valuable information and allow for informal introductions between emergency managers from different organizations. That way, when a disaster happens, you can pick up the phone and know the person on the other end of the line. That is a small, but important step, Beck says.

The workshops are a proactive step to help educate emergency responders before a disaster, but often the division has to be reactive during a disaster to better help the ag community.

One example occurred during April’s tornadoes. Several farmers had a difficult time finding assistance after the storm. Their farms were damaged, but their houses were intact. The FEMA disaster recovery centers were prepared to help those who lost their homes, but had little information to help the farmers with their farms. After realizing there was a need, the Emergency Programs Division visited the centers and distributed fliers that outlined services available for farmers, including the Ag Tornado Assistance Program hotline and website.

Whether it’s providing resources in the aftermath of a storm, or educating emergency responders before an animal disease outbreak, the Emergency Programs Division continues to look for ways to improve before the next disaster strikes.