ROCK HILL — For more than three decades, Cotton Howell has been the person in charge of York Countys emergency management operations. He and his staff have faced disasters big and small, while preparing to minimize damage if a catastrophe strikes.
Now, after countless sleepless nights because of severe weather or chemical spills or security problems, Howell, 67, is preparing to retire at the end of June.
Ive been thinking about it for a while, Howell said Monday morning, shortly after making the announcement. I decided the timing was right.
Howell is a York County native. He grew up in the Bethesda area of York County where he and his wife still make their home today.
A life of service is all hes ever known. He served in the Army, worked as a registered nurse and then as a county magistrate before becoming the director of emergency management.
Since taking on the job in 1983, Howell said hes seen innumerable changes to the community and the way his job is done. When he started, the Catawba Nuclear Plant was just a pile of dirt. There was no such thing as homeland security or cyber terrorism. There was no 911 system and certainly no Internet or other advanced communications tools.
York County and the whole complexion of emergency services has morphed into a totally different animal than it was in the 80s, he said.
He was in charge of emergency services as York County grew from a sleepy little community to a major metropolitan area.
Howell has always been a forward thinker, said Gary Loflin, director of public safety and communications for York County. Even in the mid-1980s, when 911 was still in its infancy, Howell was planning to implement a county-wide 911 system. The system was up and running by 1989.
Just the knowledge he has just of the way it was to the way it is now is something that will take years to replace, Loflin said.
Most people dont even understand what emergency management is, Howell said.
Were that piece when it gets beyond a normal day-to-day emergency, he said. Our job is to get the right resources to the right place at the right time.
Even though hes only been working with Howell for a few months, Fort Mill Fire Chief Jeffrey Hooper said Howell, and the system he has been instrumental in establishing, have been wonderful.
The way he has emergency management set up, its just been great, Hooper said. He makes it easy and simple.
In the last 30 years, Howell said hes seen his fair share of disasters, like a serious bus wreck on Interstate 77, Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and the tornadoes in 2011.
When roads get washed out, or buildings collapse or cars crash, his first priority, always, is saving lives, Howell said.
When it comes down to it, its about protecting lives first and property second, he said.
Howell knows what he wants and knows what to do to get it done, said Eddie Murphy, Chester Countys emergency management agency director. When Murphy wanted to get into emergency services, Howell was the first person he asked for advice and still seeks his input from time to time.
In their field, Murphy said Howell has a reputation for being stern and sometimes, he said, people have to sit back and just let Howell do his thing.
Howell does whatever he needs to do to get the job done, said Rock Hill Police Chief Chris Watts, who said Howell has done a good job leading York County through tremendous changes and getting the county ready to face the future.
Hes going to be really missed, he said.
Several people echoed that sentiment, calling Howell a dedicated professional who is among the best of York Countys civil servants.
Cotton has focused his entire career on emergency services, Loflin said. He had a love for the community thats shown through everything hes tried to do through the years.
But Howells service has extended beyond the borders of York County. While many people sit at home and read about disasters that strike neighboring states and countries, Howell gets on a plane, working with federal government disaster response teams.
He worked at Ground Zero in New York City after the attacks on September 11, 2001. In August 2005, he was in charge of the fatality response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Howell led the first international fatality mission to Haiti following the massive earthquake in January 2010.
Hes seen death and destruction most people will only ever see in newspapers or on television.
But, he said, thats all part of the field to which hes dedicated his life.
Our job is to make sure were in the position to respond adequately should those major events happen, he said. Were ready to go at a moments notice.
And hes going to be missed, said Loflin, Watts and Murphy.
We love him to death, Murphy said. Hes the kind of fellow youd go to war with.
In retirement, Howell said hes looking forward to spending time on his farm with his wife, traveling and enjoying his life while his health is still good. But he wont be gone from work completely. Hes looking forward to doing some consulting work and will continue his job as a responder for the federal government.
But, after 30 years of running the show, if winter weather does strike, Howell will finally be able to take a snow day.