Multiple individuals standing outdoors behind an orange ribbon that is about to be cut.

Partnerships, Dedication and Collaboration
How Warren County’s New Emergency Shelter Illustrates the Best of Community

Knowing that disaster sheltering in Warren County was a gap in capability, Director Tucker went in 2021 to the North Carolina Emergency Management Association’s conference and talked to other emergency managers about sheltering to learn all he could as he made his plans

Author: Justin Graney

When you visit Warren County, you will immediately fall in love with the rural beauty of farmland, country homes and the waters of Lake Gaston and Kerr Lake. It is hard to imagine a situation where the rays of sunshine painting these fields disappears and the need for a disaster shelter arrives. It is just that scenario that has kept Warren County Emergency Services Director Chris Tucker awake at night. When an ice storm threatened Warren County, Tucker answered the call and began preparations for an emergency shelter at the Warren County High School, a venue last utilized as a shelter in 1996 during the aftermath of Hurricane Fran. He was met with a generator that needed maintenance and would only run the lights in the school gym. Paired with freezing temperatures and sewer issues, Tucker made a decision that day: his county would never again be in this situation.

Warren County sits along the Virginia border in central North Carolina. With a median household income of $42,000 according to the 2022 U.S. Census, Warren County has a poverty rate of nearly 21%, with the largest segment of their population (a whopping 27.4%) aged 65 years or older. Disaster shelters provide vulnerable populations with reliable shelter, access to food, drinking water and resources for disaster recovery. Tucker knows his community, having been born and raised in Warren County. He has spent a career responding to the needs of his neighbors. When he is not managing the county’s emergency services programs, he is serving as fire chief of the Ridgeway Volunteer Fire Department, he is a leader in the state for the number of CPR courses delivered, as well as teaching members of the community how to administer naloxone. Serving his community is more than a mission; it is a lifestyle. 

Knowing that disaster sheltering in his county was a gap in capability, in 2021 Tucker went to the North Carolina Emergency Management Association’s conference and talked to other emergency managers about sheltering to learn all he could as he made his plans. Following his time at the conference, he began to build his plan of action. Initially passed in 2022 by the North Carolina State Legislature, the new Capacity Building Competitive Grant Program provided a funding source for building capacity in counties with a population of 230,000 or fewer. A top priority of the grant program was sheltering. Chris knew this was his chance to solve the issue that limited Warren County’s ability to provide for their residents during a disaster. He carefully applied for the grant, utilizing the services of friends, family, co-workers and community members to build his plan of action. With no funding to hire consultants and construction engineers, the community members all chipped in their time to measure the proposed location, conducted the necessary calculations to determine the needed electrical and HVAC service required, and provided estimates on possible costs. Chris carefully placed all of this information into an application, and with County Manager Vincent Jones’ approval the application was submitted to North Carolina Emergency Management. Many, including Tucker thought that this application was a long shot. He had spent weeks collecting information and carefully calculating his budget. The odds seemed against Warren County as their grant application competed against up to 89 other eligible counties and he continued to work on other solutions to their sheltering shortfall in the interim.

On a sunny afternoon, sitting in the Warren County Emergency Operations Center in a meeting with staff, Tucker received a text message from a member of NCEM that said, “Check your email." Thinking to himself that it was an odd text message, he pulled up his email on his phone. He sat back in his chair and took a deep breath. Warren County had been awarded $384,500 from the CBCG Program. 

“I cried when I received that email,” Tucker recalled. “Many of us doubted this would happen. I was proud of Warren County, our community and our emergency management team. We did it.” Quickly, that celebration turned to reality. “There was one year to make it happen before the funding expired. Knowing how tight of a timeline that was for a project of this scope, I got to work immediately on it. It was my main focus” Tucker said. 

The John Graham Recreation Center is a community center located in downtown Warrenton and managed by the Warren County Recreation Department. Formally the gymnasium for the John Graham High School, the gym has a new life as a hub of sports in the Warrenton community. Tucker proposed utilizing the site for the emergency shelter, which county leadership agreed with. As the project began, so did the challenges. A contracted engineering firm had to be hired, new electric lines had to be installed for the building, easements needed investigation and a large generator needed to be installed with a substantial electrical upfit required. Undeterred, Tucker worked to find solutions. “I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying about this project and trying to figure out how to solve challenge after challenge” he said. 

Warren County Commissioners supported the project and allocated $262,000 to supplement the project as additional funding was critical to ensuring the project’s success. 

As the grant’s period of performance deadline knocked on Tucker’s door, the final hurdle came into view. The new generator that would power the shelter during a disaster was set to arrive. The county didn’t have a forklift or a loading dock that could handle such a mammoth undertaking. In the Warren County spirit of neighbors helping neighbors, a local business, Cast Stone Systems Inc. offered to unload the generator using their forklift. Once the generator was unloaded, the company went a step further; they drove the generator on the forklift 0.3 miles through downtown Warrenton and placed it on to the newly poured concrete pad for installation. “We were glad to assist Warren County Emergency Services with this project and are always willing to help whomever we can in the community” said a representative for Cast Stone Systems Inc. 

Generator outside of brick building.
The brand new Warren County Emergency Shelter Generator outside the John Graham Recreation Center in Warrenton. 

“Receiving funding from NCEM to support the county’s efforts to stand up a true emergency shelter is an outstanding accomplishment for the county. Without a doubt, the upgrades required to outfit the shelter will allow the county to independently serve our residents during large scale emergencies or disasters.  We now have a first-rate facility that can serve our residents safely and extended the life a historical asset in our community” said Warren County Manager Vincent Jones.

Empty gymnasium
Inside the Warren County Emergency Shelter, located inside the John Graham Recreation Center in Warrenton. 
White and blue hallway.
New paint, insulation, lighting and ceiling tiles adorn the John Graham Recreation Center in Warrenton, home of the new Warren County Emergency Shelter. 

In what was truly a whole-of-community approach to building capacity and resilience in Warren County, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held on November 1, 2023. Not only will this shelter serve the citizens of Warren County during times of disaster, but there are also plans to open the shelter for other communities in North Carolina that need to offer a safe refuge to citizens during an emergency, in partnerships with NCEM and other state, local and non-governmental organizations. With a capacity of over 600 people, the impact of this project will last for generations.

“The Warren County disaster shelter project is an example of what a community can accomplish when they leverage partnerships. The CBCG Program was established to aid counties across the state in building emergency response and recovery capacity. I applaud Warren County for not only taking advantage of this grant program, but for the whole-of-community approach that they are taking to building a more resilient community” added NCEM Director Will Ray. 

For more information on the CBCG Program in North Carolina, please visit 

Related Topics: