By Rose Hoban

Now that Florence has blown ashore in southeastern North Carolina, state officials are indicating  that storm response will be “a marathon, not a sprint.”

According to Matt Herr, who’s the Health Services Chief of Staff for Health and Human Services under Sec. Mandy Cohen, that’s the operating principle behind a new command center set up by DHHS to respond to Hurricane Florence and her aftermath.

He said that, ahead of the storm, members of the DHHS staff had discussions about ramping up efforts, “and the idea for the command center developed out of that.” He stressed that Cohen’s collaborative approach to management allowed for the idea to emerge.

The result? A command center staffed by high level officials located in the North Carolina State Laboratory, just a five-minute golf cart ride away from the N.C. Emergency Operations Center in the outskirts of Raleigh.

“We were thinking through how to best approach this storm. We realized that business as usual wasn’t going to be enough,” Herr said.

He said there were two reasons to set up the command center, “First was to stay agile and responsive to the needs on the ground, second is to think strategically days and weeks in advance about how to make sure that North Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens have what they need to get through this major event.

“The biggest work will come after storm clouds have passed.”

At least a half dozen departmental leaders have been glued to their laptops coordinating responses.

Keep up wtih the latest hurricane news. Sign up for our free Headlines Newsletter.Herr also said that the group expects to be coordinating public health responses to the storm’s aftermath identified by emergency managers. In past storms, public health risks have included flood water that’s been fouled by chemicals, sewage, and hog waste lagoons, the risk of coffins floating to the surface of waterlogged cemeteries, outbreaks of disease, flies, mosquitoes, and other epidemiological risks.

Varied response

There’s a lot to coordinate and folks at the DHHS command center are paying attention to small details, such as  getting American Sign Language interpreters into shelters, tracking how hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis centers are faring, and  getting DHHS resources into medical shelters in High Point, Goldsboro and Clayton.


“We’re doing a lot of rallying of departmental resources to make sure that shelters are fully staffed and have what they need,” Herr said. “Same for state-run facilities.”

The medical shelters are intended to help people with more complicated medical conditions, but not so complicated as to require hospitalization.

“The High Point and Goldsboro shelters are nearly at capacity, but there is capacity in Clayton,” Cohen announced during the press briefing held by Gov. Roy Cooper at the state EOC Friday morning. All told, the shelters have capacity for “several hundred” people, Herr said.

During the same press conference, Cooper said that “for some parts of southeastern North Carolina, one forecast shows a 1,000 year rain event.”

“We are expecting several more days of rain, focus now is getting away from immediate danger and then we will shift to putting our communities back together,” Cooper said.

Tweet from Matthew Herr taken on the evening of Sept. 13. Herr is pictured far left. Around the table behind him are: Danny Staley, Director of the Division of Public Health, State Health Director Betsey Tilson, Medicaid chief Dave Richard,Deputy Secretary for Health Services Mark Benton, Charles Carter from Information Technology,Deputy Secretary for Technology and Operations Sam Gibbs, and medical student Sudhakar Nuti who is serving as special assistant to Sec. Cohen.


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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...