On Land and in the Air, these Volunteers Were Essential in Florence

man loading boxes into small plane
Wednesday, October 24, 2018 - 3:34pm
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 Civil Air Patrol's efforts. 

Days before Hurricane Florence made landfall, a group of highly-trained volunteers ranging from teens to septuagenarians were strategically positioned across the state to prepare for the storm’s impacts on North Carolina. As the storm approached and in the weeks that followed, the 900+ members of the Civil Air Patrol would provide aerial photographs used to make strategic operational decisions, deliver critical supplies, transport vital staff and support emergency operations.

As the official auxiliary of the United States Air Force (USAF), the Civil Air Patrol has a three-fold mission: support emergency services, promote aerospace education and maintain youth programs that offer leadership training. North Carolina’s wing of the national humanitarian program consists of 1,900+ volunteers, more than half of which are cadets between the ages of 12 and 21.  Typically, the CAP transports supplies, helps with search and rescue missions, and takes aerial photographs before and after disasters so emergency managers can make critical life-saving and recovery decisions. 

In the days before landfall, the CAP began coordinating with their partners in NC Emergency Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, FEMA and the USAF to see how they could best help the state prepare for what was predicted to be a record-breaking storm.  

Their first mission was to help relocate CAP aircraft and vehicles west of Interstate 95 to mitigate potential damage. As the storm crept closer, other missions ensued. 

No assignment was too small or insignificant. One group of CAP volunteers was tasked with moving dozens of wire dog kennels to various shelters across eastern North Carolina. Ultimately, they delivered approximately 21 pallets of small, medium, large and extra-large kennels to help house pets that people brought with them when they evacuated. 

Another group delivered caseloads of VIPER hand-held radios for first responders to coordinate and communicate with each other, while yet another was charged with delivering 600 personal floatation devices to National Guard members who were helping with search and rescue operations.   

“The professionalism and dedication that these volunteers exhibited during Florence was unbelievable,” reflected Benjamin Watkins, CAP Manager for NCEM. “Many of these folks were personally affected by Florence, some even losing everything they had. Yet they made sure they were here to support the state’s storm response, working 12-16 hour days for days on end. I'm humbled by the true grit and capabilities of the NC Wing of Civil Air Patrol and had to constantly remind myself that these folks are an all-volunteer force. 

Throughout the week before and after Florence struck North Carolina, the CAP flew aerial photography missions for both NCEM and FEMA. Flight crews were given lists of pre-determined targets so the agencies would have before and after images of critical infrastructure that they needed to determine the level of impact and prioritize response to these impacted areas. CAP teams took nearly two-thousand photos of dams, roads, bridges, power stations and other such critical infrastructure.

Some of the CAP crews were tasked with photographing 14 possible tornado tracks to help the National Weather Service determine if these areas had an actual tornado strike.  

When Florence’s floodwaters left countless communities isolated, the Civil Air Patrol was repeatedly called upon to fly critical supplies into otherwise inaccessible areas. Two days after the hurricane, the CAP crews flew essential parts and network cards needed to restore Jacksonville’s faltering 911-system and get the emergency response system back on line. And when the severity of flooding elevated concerns about well water consumption safety among residents in eastern communities, the CAP flew approximately 1800 water test kits to various counties. The Public Health Department also asked the Civil Air Patrol for help. Crews were tasked with transporting critical medical and nutritional supplies into areas cut off by floodwaters. Thanks to these missions, infants with milk and soy allergies were able to get the specialized formulas needed to help them survive and thrive.  

In addition to flying supplies into isolated areas, the Civil Air Patrol also helped to transport critical staff. The CAP crews flew two Kentucky-based nurses from Ocean Isle where they had been helping treat storm victims back to Kinston so they could pick up their vehicles and colleagues and return home to the Bluegrass State. Another assignment tasked the CAP with transporting 20 firefighters back to Greensboro and a 12-man team back to Salisbury when floodwaters prevented the teams from driving home. As storm response transitioned to storm recovery, CAP crews also were asked to help to transport 14 evacuees who had been staying at the coliseum in Winston-Salem back to their home counties in southeastern North Carolina.    

Civil Air Patrol in Hurricane Florence

CAP members that worked


Total volunteer hours


Images taken/submitted


Number of ground missions


Number of air missions


While many of the CAPs missions involved air deliveries, one of their longest – and perhaps most extensive – assignments relied on the group’s boots-on-the-ground capabilities. Nearly 150 Civil Air Patrol volunteers distributed bottled water, food and tarps at delivery sites in Lenoir and New Hanover counties. CAP members were responsible for operating both sites; doling out supplies in Lenoir County for six days and in New Hanover for 11. 

Between aerial assignments and commodity distribution, CAP members also were asked to help with administrative matters and manage staging areas for state emergency management coordinating centers. 

Given Florence’s size and impact, North Carolina CAP called on other states to help when our own resources began dwindling. Members from Wings in Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and West Virginia came to help with CAP storm response missions. 

By the end of the nearly three-week storm activation, the skilled and highly-trained all-volunteer force had donated nearly 25,000 hours of their time to help North Carolinians weather and recover from Hurricane Florence. How appropriate, then, that the Civil Air Patrol’s motto is Semper Vigilans – Always Vigilant! 

Julia Jarema, Public Relations Manager