While the residents of York County were rocked by hurricanes, terrorist attacks, toxic chemical spills and other natural and man-made disasters, it has been the responsibility of Cotton Howell to come up with a sensible response to those threats, one that will save lives and property wherever possible.
As director of the countys emergency management operations, Howell never has had the luxury of simply sitting back and watching a natural disaster unfold on The Weather Channel. He has been charged with the task of warning the public, making sure people take the proper steps to protect themselves, stocking up on food, water and other emergency supplies, overseeing teams of rescue workers, helping locate victims and being constantly on the alert for a new threat, a new hazard.
Sometimes he has performed these duties in his own back yard. Sometimes they have taken him to the far corners of the globe. But, for the past 30 years, he always has answered the call no matter where he was needed.
Howell announced last week that he will retire at the end of June. He still will do some consulting work and will continue as a responder for the federal government.
But he wont be involved in the grinding work of ensuring that York County is ready for whatever the heavens or the spawn of hell might throw at it. As he put it, when the next winter storm hits, he finally will be able to take a snow day.
Howells life of public service has included a stint in the Army, work as a registered nurse and as a county magistrate before accepting the job that would consume his life for the next three decades. During that time, Howell has been through Hurricane Hugo in 1989, tornadoes in 2011, and a variety of storms and weather events that hit the county.
He has worked with federal government disaster response teams, working at Ground Zero in New York City following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also was in charge of the fatality response after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and after the massive earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010.
But much of his energy was consumed by just keeping up with changes, both technological and tactical, in the business of emergency preparedness. For example, he ushered in the countys 911 emergency response system in the mid-1980s when calling 911 still was something new for most people.
The Internet was still in the dream stage, and the phrase cyber security had yet to be invented in those early years. Responders communicated with walkie-talkies, not cell phones. And the distribution of information after a storm was extremely limited.
But whatever potential threat or disaster might arise, the residents of York County could count on the cool head, the professionalism and the knowledge of Cotton Howell to help see them through it. He certainly has earned the chance to pursue his goals of spending time on his farm with his wife and traveling around the state while his health still is good.
And he has earned the right to snow days and to put his feet up and relax when the wind is howling and the rain is coming down sideways. And he has earned the thanks of York County residents for his dedication to keeping them safe for the past 30 years.