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Monday, October 15, 2018 - 3:57pm
Storm Response Series: While North Carolina braced for Hurricane Florence, numerous NC Public Safety agencies joined in the storm preparations, response and recovery. Today's blog provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Community Correction Office's efforts. 

PPO’s take on added duties to help North Carolinians during tragic times

September 2018 will go down in history as being one of the most catastrophic months in North Carolina history.  That’s because of major tragedies that occurred that month. On September 14, Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast, leaving a path of devastation throughout the central and eastern regions.  That same month, a six-year old boy mysteriously disappeared near Gastonia, prompting a county-wide search. In both cases, probation/parole officers from the NC Department of Public Safety, went beyond the call of duty to help grieving families in need.  

“In some cases, officers were diverted from their regular cases while colleagues covered for them. In other cases, officers took on the added duties, in addition to their regular job responsibilities,” said Tracy Lee, Director of Community Corrections.  “We are so proud of our men and women who answered the call for help and not once considered it an inconvenience.  It’s what they do daily.  Serve.”

Well before Hurricane Florence made landfall, members of an Emergency Response Team made up of probation/parole officers were activated.  They prepared to respond at a moment’s notice and took on the preemptive tasks of moving vehicles and equipment out of flood prone areas, securing offenders who were on house arrest or those being electronically monitored in case of an extended power failure and creating and approving storm evacuation plans for registered sex offenders.  

“We knew the Hurricane was coming, so we did what we were trained to do,” said Thomas Newcomer, an emergency response team member.  “We were prepared to offer all the help that we could to those in need at possibly the worst time of their lives.”  
All hands were on deck for the storm preps.  Even members of the community corrections leadership team helped emergency responders get ready for what meteorologists called a historic “500-year storm.”

Once the Hurricane made landfall, several teams of officers were deployed to areas hardest hit.  Lumberton, NC was among them.  

“When we got there, we saw devastation in that community was really bad and I've never seen anything like it before,” said team member Janel Tilghman.  “I think witnessing how flooded the area was would give all survivors an excuse to be mad at the world after losing everything and no one could blame them.  However, they were the exact opposite, very appreciative, and often expressed their gratitude with a warm smile and offering of a cold bottle of water.  The Lumberton, NC community has taught me not to complain in the face of adversity but to find a way to be appreciative.  I will never forget that tour, my heart aches for the community as I reminisce about the devastation.”

Officers helped by moving commodities, directing traffic, making sure emergency shelters were secure, serving in feeding kitchens; any place their services were needed. 

As the state reeled from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence throughout the eastern part of the state, another tragic story was unfolding in Gaston County.  Local and national news media were reporting the story about a six-year old boy who was missing. 

Maddox Ritch wandered away from his father during a visit to a Gastonia park.  Local law enforcement as well as community volunteers combed the area where the child was last seen, but they needed more help.  Enter probation/parole officers from the western part of the state.  More than 30 officers looked for signs of the boy, diagnosed with autism.  They concentrated on making contact with known registered sex offenders in the area and left no stones unturned.  

“We directed our team to search every small area, out buildings, storage rooms, trash cans, campers, crawl spaces; anywhere a four-foot, 45-pound child could possibly be,” said Kim Gettys, Judicial District Manager in the Gastonia probation officer.  “Officers were also briefed on the signs of children with autism, what to look for and ways to get Maddox's attention.”  

The grueling search lasted more than a week, but it would end in heartbreak after the state medical examiner confirmed that the tiny body found in a creek just outside of town was that of little Maddox.  Although the ending was sad, the Gaston County Sheriff’s department and community leaders let our officers know how much they were appreciated

“When our officers take the oath to serve and protect, that commitment comes without conditions or perimeters,” said Lee. “I’m proud of our team.  They’ve got grit, they have heart, and they don’t stop until the job is done.”        

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Author: 
Sonja Bennett-Bellamy