North Carolina’s rescue efforts after Hurricane Florence recognized with international award

11 men standing on stage holding award

North Carolina has received a special commendation from the Higgins and Langley Memorial Awards in Swift Water Rescue for the coordinated local, state and federal response to Hurricane Florence in 2018, when responders rescued and evacuated more than 5,200 people. 

The internationally recognized awards for excellence in swift water and flood rescue were presented this week during the annual conference of the International Association of Water Rescue Professionals in South Bend, Indiana.  

“This award recognizes great work by our local, state and federal water rescue teams, both in the water and in the air, during the Hurricane Florence response,” said state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry.  “These teams train constantly and their capability and professionalism shines through in all their responses.”

Established in 1993, the Higgins & Langley Memorial Awards honor Earl Higgins, a writer and filmmaker who lost his life in 1980 while rescuing a child who was swept down the flood-swollen Los Angeles River, and Jeffrey Langley, a Los Angeles County firefighter, paramedic and swift water rescue pioneer, who lost his life in a helicopter incident in 1993. The awards acknowledge individuals and swift water rescue teams that use specialized technical rescue to save lives, increase awareness about the need for swift water and flood rescue training, promote worldwide training standards of certification, and inspire other agencies to develop viable water rescue programs.

This marks the third time North Carolina has received an award from the Higgins and Langley organization. The state received its top honor for Outstanding Achievement twice, in 2005 after swift water rescue teams saved more than 1,110 people during Tropical Storms Frances and Ivan, and in 2017 after crews rescued more than 2,300 people during Hurricane Matthew. 

North Carolina Emergency Management organizes the state’s search and rescue programs including swift water, wilderness, helicopter and mountain teams by providing oversight, training and funding. Highly-trained swift water rescue teams are positioned across the state, in addition to the North Carolina Helicopter and Aquatic Rescue Team (NC HART) which combines swift water rescue technicians with helicopters for rescues by air.  The swift water rescue teams are comprised of personnel and equipment from local public safety agencies across the state that train to meet national standards and can be deployed anywhere within North Carolina or across the country. NC HART combines aircraft and pilots from the NC State Highway Patrol or NC National Guard with many of the swift water rescue technicians to extricate people trapped in trees, rooftops or other precarious locations. 

Following Hurricane Florence, the state’s rescue teams were supported by FEMA swift water rescue teams from several states, and by U.S. Coast Guard resources based in North Carolina and elsewhere.

North Carolina’s search and rescue capabilities were born in the wake of Hurricane Fran in 1996 when NC Emergency Management recognized the need to develop an inventory of available teams with basic rescue capabilities. The asset proved to be extremely valuable three years later during Hurricane Floyd when responders rescued hundreds of victims from flooded homes, cars, rooftops and trees. Floyd's rescue operations highlighted the need for specially trained and equipped teams that could safely rescue those trapped in floodwaters or swift water conditions. Since then, the swift water / flood rescue teams and NCHART teams have become some of the state’s most activated specialized emergency response resources.

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