In January 2022, a large fire blazed for several days at Weaver Fertilizer Plant in Winston-Salem, causing thousands to evacuate the area under the threat of a potential explosion from ammonium nitrate stored at the facility.

A state of emergency was never declared and evacuation remained voluntary.

At a Sept. 13, 2022 public works committee meeting Fire Chief Trey Mayo gave the council an after-action report on the Weaver Fire, during which he mentioned that both he and Emergency Management Director August Vernon agreed that if they “had to do it all over again,” they would have “made it a mandatory evacuation.”

Now, city staff are taking a look at how they communicate with elected officials during disasters. By amending an ordinance in the city code, staff would be required to consult with councilmembers regarding circumstances in their ward that may be a threat to life or property.

This item was heard during an April 10 public safety committee meeting and will return to council for an official decision sometime in May according to City Attorney Angela Carmon, who spoke on the two proposed amendments.

Carmon said that the amendments were being suggested in order to “codify some lessons learned from the Weaver Plant fire.”

Lessons learned

During the April 10 meeting North Ward representative and Mayor Pro Tempore Denise D. Adams recalled the frustrating lack of communication during the fire.

“When it happened… I felt like I should’ve had a part in the discussion,” she said.” And I was not.” 

Adams went on to say that while she got some updates, during the disaster she wondered: “Where is the state of emergency?” 

“I was given all of some reasons as to why, and for me that wasn’t good enough,” she added. “My constituents told me that was not good enough — that they elected me and they expected me to have a voice for them in any discussions of emergency responsiveness to the ward.”

Carmon said that the first proposed amendment is intended to direct staff to engage more fully during a potential state of emergency, encouraging them to have discussions “not only with the mayor, but with the councilmember of the ward about whether or not a state of emergency declaration is needed.”

“I think it was clear from the Weaver plant fire that, in terms of staff, not all lines of communications were directed to the appropriate councilmember of the ward,” Carmon said.

She said that the purpose of the proposed amendments is to “encourage and make sure that we’re inclusive in that discussion about whether or not a state of emergency is needed.” 

Carmon added the final decision to declare a state of emergency would still rest with the Mayor. 

The second proposed amendment would require the mayor to update city council within 24 hours of a state of emergency proclamation. 

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