By Carol Vaughn —
FEMA Administrator Peter T. Gaynor visited Accomack County’s new Emergency Operations Center in Melfa Monday as part of a tour of the mid-Atlantic region.
Gaynor was accompanied by MaryAnn Tierney, FEMA Region 3 administrator; Curtis Brown, VDEM state coordinator; Bruce Sterling, VDEM Region 5 chief regional coordinator; and John Northon, VDEM deputy state coordinator for disaster services.
The trip’s purpose was in part for federal officials to see how rural emergency operations centers, such as Accomack’s, function.
FEMA officials typically do a hurricane-awareness tour this time of year, often highlighting high-risk areas such as Florida and Texas; this year they chose the mid-Atlantic region as a focus, Gaynor said.
“It is all about leadership in the worst of times,” Gaynor said, adding, “It has been a challenging…six months with COVID,” along with the arrival of hurricane season and a recent earthquake that affected parts of mainland Virginia.
“You see how complex these things are,” he said.
Accomack’s center, constructed as an addition to the Regional Fire Training Center on Beacon Road, along with serving as the emergency operations center during disasters provides a place for county government to continue functioning should the county administration building be damaged or unavailable.
It already is being put to use in the latter capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees from departments where office space does not allow for social distancing, including the treasurer’s and assessor’s offices, are working at the EOC for now.
The facility, which includes a kitchen and showers, also is a training center for first responders.
The center replaced the former EOC, a room inside the 911 building in Accomac that was too small to handle the number of people working there during an emergency, and which lacked showers and kitchen facilities.
The new center’s location, adjacent to the Accomack County Airport, is beneficial during incidents where access by air may be needed.
“This is just one step in our path to become a more resilient government,” said Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason, adding, “It’s everything from responding to manmade disasters, to pandemics, to terrorism, to anything that can disrupt county government. We realized that during a crisis, that’s when your residents really count on you and they expect you to be up and running and provide the services,” he said.
Charles R. Pruitt, Accomack County director of public safety, led officials on a tour of the building.
Pruitt talked about how emergency operations work on the rural Eastern Shore, including special challenges because of the Shore’s geographical isolation — including Tangier, which is accessible only by boat or air. He also spoke about how residents pitch in during crises — mentioning by way of example farmers who used their own equipment to assist ambulances and others during a severe snow storm a few years ago.
“We depend a lot on the community. We depend a lot on volunteer fire departments,” he said.
Additionally, Pruitt talked about the importance of regional cooperation, including collaboration with neighboring Worcester County, Md.
Bryan Rush, Chincoteague emergency management coordinator, spoke about the Delmarva Emergency Task Force, which includes Delaware, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
Gaynor, who is on the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, asked about COVID-19 on the Shore.
“We jumped on it really early, especially with guidance from our emergency management team. …We’ve knocked the numbers down. Aside from the (poultry) processing plants, I think the numbers have been very good,” Chincoteague Mayor J. Arthur Leonard said.
He added, “We’re fighting an influx of tourism, because we are a tourism area, so we always have to worry about that.”
Mason spoke about coronavirus outbreaks earlier this year at the county’s two poultry processing plants.
“Once we got those behind us, our seven-day case rate has been less than the average across Virginia, and so has our testing positivity rate. We’ve seen a remarkable turnaround; people around here, I think, for the most part really take it seriously,” he said.
Gaynor congratulated officials for the Shore having a low COVID-19 case rate and he urged people to do four things in order to keep the economy open.
“Wear a mask, keep your hands clean, …social distance,” and avoid crowded places. “If you do those four things, we can keep on driving,” he said, adding, “Don’t get lulled into complacency, either.”