Cotton Howell is not big on accepting praise. He’s ducked it for more than 30 years.
So the outgoing York County emergency management director – respected statewide, regionally and even nationally – still would rather go to a scene and help people survive the worst that nature and man can dish out than face a roomful of people trying to tell him how great he is.
But on Thursday, Howell, 67, had to face the music as his co-workers and others in emergency services – from cops to firefighters, and even the dispatchers that Howell treated as kings and queens – threw him a going-away party in advance of his June 30 retirement.
Howell looked around the packed room at the people who walk into burning buildings, treat the injured at crash scenes and pick up after Mother Nature goes crazy.
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“You have been the inspiration to me,” he told the group. “I learned so much from all of you.”
Typical Cotton Howell.
Except that since 1983, Howell has been the man in charge of planning for any emergency with the Catawba Nuclear Station. And he’s the guy who directed hundreds of others to deal with tens of thousands of people without power after Hurricane Hugo and ice storms. He’s the man who had to handle the 2009 Bleachery fire that was so huge smoke could be seen 30 miles away from downtown Rock Hill.
Gary Loflin, who runs York County’s 911 system, will handle Howell’s duties from July 1 until county officials hire a replacement.
But nobody replaces Cotton Howell.
The man – small and wiry, with that shock of white-blonde hair that gave him his nickname as a boy – is like no one else.
Howell was surprised Thursday when Kim Stenson, director of the state Emergency Management Division, presented him with the S.C. National Guard’s Meritorious Service Medal – South Carolina’s highest military honor bestowed on a civilian.
Howell, who has talked through storms and anything else nonstop his whole life, admitted he “was at a loss for words.”
“First time in history,” somebody blurted out. “Cotton Howell without anything to say.”
Howell had to have something to say for years as he was the leader of emergency services. It is a job that requires steel nerves and the ability to make decisions and to coordinate people and agencies that can ruffle feathers. Howell ruffled enough feathers in 31 years to make a hotel full of pillows.
But York County Councilman Chad Williams put it this way, in a paraphrase from legendary County Councilman Curwood Chappell: “When the stuff hits the fan, ain’t nobody else anywhere you want in charge but Cotton Howell.”
Howell, even in retirement, will continue his role with the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team he has worked with for years. He spent months in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, helping to coordinate the retrieval of bodies after the country’s worst-ever attack. He spent weeks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and led a team into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
For years, Howell has been the guy America sent to help run the response and recovery to the worst things we see.
The accolades piled up Thursday from emergency management directors from neighboring counties, North Carolina and more. Several people talked of how, through all the years, Howell’s goal was always clear – the protection of the public came first. If that meant friction with politicians, then that is what it meant.
Howell grew up in the Bethesda community south of Rock Hill and never tried to be anything but a country guy who – after a stint in the Army, then nursing, then as a magistrate judge before taking over emergency services – wanted things done and accepted no excess.
During his tenure, emergency services transitioned from the air raid days of Civil Defense to emergency management done by computers and forms and grants – but the goal was always the same.
“Help people,” Howell said.
Howell acknowledged Thursday all those first responders, including volunteers, with whom he had worked. The nights, weekends and holidays that people who volunteer or work in emergency services spend in the middle of the maelstrom while others go home.
“I was proud to do it,” Howell said. “Every time.”
Cotton is a nickname. The real name of this guy has never been used, but supposedly it is Edgar.
But that doesn’t matter, because for so long, the only name anybody ever needed to say when the fires burned or the snow fell or the weakest among us needed a hand was, “Cotton.”