400 attend WCU summit addressing emergency planning, preparedness

Above: Gordon Mercer, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute, listens as Corey Gruber, assistant deputy administrator for the National Preparedness Directorate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks at the emergency preparedness summit.

Above: Gordon Mercer, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute, listens as Corey Gruber, assistant deputy administrator for the National Preparedness Directorate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks at the emergency preparedness summit.

It is imperative that leaders at the local, state and federal levels take steps today so that they are better able to deal with the emergencies and disasters of tomorrow. That was the message heard repeatedly Thursday, Nov. 15, as Western Carolina University hosted a day of dialogue about emergency preparedness.

An estimated 400 people, ranging from college students to federal officials, came together at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center for a summit titled “Emergency Management and Disaster Leadership Preparedness in the 21st Century.” The event, sponsored by WCU’s Public Policy Institute, attracted N.C. emergency responders from as far away as Fayetteville, and from South Carolina and Georgia.

H. Douglas Hoell Jr.

H. Douglas Hoell Jr.

H. Douglas Hoell Jr., director of the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, told the crowd that the concept of emergency preparedness changed dramatically after Sept. 11, shifted again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and undoubtedly will transform again in the future.

“There are new disasters on the horizon, things we haven’t even thought of yet,” said Hoell, one of two keynote speakers. “Here’s a perfect example – the drought is an emerging disaster. It’s such an emerging disaster that the governor has asked the Division of Emergency Management to take a leadership role in dealing with it.”

Other potential future emergencies could range from the pandemic flu to massive technology systems failure, and the rapidly rising cost of fuel represents a potential economic emergency, he said.

Hoell was among many speakers at the summit to remind participants that the key to disaster preparedness begins at home.

“All disasters begin and end at the local level, not the state or the federal level. In times of disaster, people in communities and the neighborhoods are the ones on the front lines. That’s why preparedness is your responsibility as an individual, as the member of a family and as a member of your profession, whatever that may be,” he said. “Wherever you work, wherever you go to school, wherever you participate in worship, you and your organization should be a functional part of the preparedness effort.”

Fellow keynote speaker Corey Gruber, assistant deputy administrator for the National Preparedness Directorate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told the crowed that FEMA learned valuable lessons from mistakes made after Hurricane Katrina.

“The greatest thing we faced in Katrina was the lack of planning, preparing and building that had characterized this country for decades. These problems didn’t happen over night,” he said. “We walked into Katrina – and into Sept. 11 – with a suitcase full of behavioral assumptions. Some of them proved wrong.”

Gruber praised WCU and the Public Policy Institute for organizing a summit on such an important topic. “This is a textbook collection of speakers you have assembled, and that tells me you are on the cutting edge of emergency preparedness and homeland security,” Gruber said.

Kyle Carter, WCU’s provost, said educational institutions must join with emergency responders, law enforcement, elected officials and others to develop strategies so that when disaster strikes, agencies are prepared. Carter talked of a scenario in which a major disaster in Atlanta has refugees streaming into the mountains of Western North Carolina, including the Cullowhee campus.

“Universities have lots of resources,” he told the crowd. “That’s why this conference is so important. We hope that through your participation you will help provide some of the answers that we all need. We don’t want our sons or our daughters, our friends or our colleagues, to be victims of us not being prepared. I’m glad we are working collaboratively to solve problems that could be facing us just around the corner.”

Summit speakers included Jerry VeHaun, director of the Buncombe County Department of Emergency Services; Dr. Martha Salyers, medical director of the Buncombe County Health Center; Gregory Grayson, Asheville fire and rescue chief; Debra Collington, director of emergency services for the American Red Cross; Lt. Col. Jamie Mosteller, director of military operations and military support for the N.C. National Guard; James D. Russell, supervisory senior resident agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Dr. Julie Casani, preparedness director for the N.C. Division of Public Health; Jerry Boggs of the National Emergency Number Association; and Robert Berry, Lisa Briggs and Karen Mason of the WCU department of applied criminology.

PPI staff will collect recommendations from summit participants and develop a policy that will provide a roadmap for emergency and disaster leadership preparedness, said Gordon Mercer, PPI director.

Established in 1999, WCU’s Public Policy Institute was founded to study issues of importance to Western North Carolina, the state and nation, and to assist in the planning and development of policy issues to address those issues. For more information, call (828) 227-2086.