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UNC professor Bill Gentry spent 30 years responding to disasters

Bill Gentry (only had 15 minutes so I didn't get caption info. Look at article)
Bill Gentry (only had 15 minutes so I didn't get caption info. Look at article)

“Really, I’ve lived this line of work for 30 years,” Gentry said.

Gentry is now director of the Community Preparedness and Disaster Management program at UNC’s Gillings School of Public Health, but years before, he worked as a responder to disasters all over the country.

His experience ranges from North Dakota to New York. Gentry said two disasters stand out as particularly memorable: Florida’s Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which was his first time working as a responder, and ground zero, where he was sent three days after Sept. 11, 2001.

At ground zero, he said he was struck by the sheer magnitude of destruction in an area small enough to walk around in 45 minutes.

“It took the first couple of days to get my arms around it,” he said.

Hurricane Andrew, in contrast, was memorable because of its scope — a path of nothing spanning over five miles.

Gentry said the CPDM program began as a direct response to 9/11 in 2003, and he has been leading the program since 2005.

The program, offered online to undergraduates and graduate students, allowed Gentry to use his contacts from his years as a responder. He said the experience these people brought to the courses helped give real-world examples that went beyond a textbook.

Gentry said the public rarely prepares for disaster situations.

“Heck, they always think there’s going to be cable,” he said.

“Everyone should realize they are responsible for themselves and in charge of themselves 24/7.”

Gentry said community preparedness is essential because even first responders can experience difficulties in an emergency. During Hurricane Andrew, he and other responders were paired with firefighters who had worked in the area for a long time.

“They could literally get lost because they could not recognize where they were,” he said.

Alumni of the CPDM program include James Groves, director of Orange County emergency services, and Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke.

Groves, who has known Gentry since the early 1990s, called him a true champion of community preparation.

“‘Call me, I’ll be there.’ That’s the sort of guy he is,” Groves said.

Wolfe, who did the program during the swine flu pandemic, said it made sense to be knowledgeable about emergency work. He praised the program, saying the courses were practical, not theoretical.

“No matter who the lecturer was, they used examples they experienced,” he said. “You want to take it from someone who talked the talk, walked the walk.”

Sandra Greene, interim chairwoman of the Department of Health Policy and Management, said the program is beneficial.

“There are natural disasters all over the world, and people need training to prepare to deal with the aftermath,” she said.

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