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When hurricanes threaten, he helps make the call to evacuate

May 04, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- As Atlantic Hurricane season begins along the East Coast, the City of Richmond will begin its annual testing of the James River flood wall to make sure it is ready if needed.

It is a similar mantra of preparing ahead of time that Patrick Cox has followed over his 14-year career at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).

"I came here just before Irene came along and that was memorable," Cox said. "We were working in [the Emergency Operations Center] and 24-hour shifts for many, many weeks."

It is inside the Emergency Operations Center in Chesterfield County where Cox now brings experts together to respond to disasters whenever and wherever they hit Virginia.

"[We] allow them to come together and solve the Commonwealth's problems as a team," he said. "Everybody winds up being touched by the storm in one way or another, either directly through the weather or part of the contribution, part of the solution to the problem."

Cox said he learned his current emergency management skills as a young man in the Marine Corps.

"Allow somebody to get good at what their job is and then do their job," he said. "We have to be very comfortable delegating and very comfortable allowing every one of our great state agency partners to solve the problems with just a minimal amount of input. Because, they're the experts."

Among the jobs is human services.

Human services are the people who set up mass shelters and feeding sites if needed.

"We have agreements with 13 different institutes of higher ed across the Commonwealth, where if that event were to ever take place, we would be able to stand up mass shelters," said Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) Commissioner Danny Avula. "It is a huge team effort VDEM, VDSS are regularly practicing our efforts. In fact, June 9, in Blacksburg we've got a state sheltering exercise coming up so that we can actually put these plans into practice."

Another department is search and rescue.

"We're preparing for those first 72-to-96 hours for when people didn't evacuate or can't evacuate for one reason or another. How do we get them out once the surge comes in and floods their home where they think maybe they're not going to be flooded," said Bryan Saunders, Emergency Services Program Manager. "We are prepared to move the groups of boats, groups of aircraft in to not only get some type of situational awareness on what is bad and what is good, but also — who needs to help, who needs to help first."

Saunders said his team is most concerned about flooding, rather than wind damage.

"When we look at a [category] three type storm, which is the middle of the scale, we're looking at three-to-11-feet of storm surge. And when we look at that type of storm surge, and you put it on a map, folks as far west as Richmond could be affected from that type," he added.

As hurricane season arrives, Cox and his team hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. The preparation, he said, is the hardest part.

"When the response part of the job becomes part of our muscle memory," Cox said. "If we're doing our jobs correctly, today's the hardest day of the year for me, not the day that the hurricane hits."

Cox also urged Virginians around the Commonwealth to prepare their homes and families before the weather becomes an imminent threat.

"Please take our word for it that there's a necessary reason that you're being asked to evacuate," he said. "We don't take these decisions lightly. In the meantime, have a kit, stay informed, and take care of your neighbor."

This year, VDEM has also created brochures to help Virginians prepare for hurricane seasons depending on if they live on the coast or further inland. Those guides can be found here.

For Saunders, he added that people should make sure to have portable phone chargers as part of their preparedness kit. He said in case people are in need of rescue and it will help keep their phones charged to be able to keep crews updated on where they are.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Cox had been with VDEM for 24 years. He has been with them since 2009.

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