Cheryl Nelson, Mrs. Virginia International 2014, holds more than a decade of broadcast journalism experience as a TV meteorologist and now promotes a unique campaign for emergency preparedness in the Commonwealth.
VDEM: How did you choose natural disaster preparedness as your cause or platform?
Mrs. Va. Int’l: I’ve had a passion for weather and preparedness since I was a child. I remember watching my parents board up the windows in our house in Connecticut in preparation for Hurricane Gloria that hit New England in September 1985. By the age of nine, I knew I was going to be a meteorologist. Now, with over a decade of experience as a broadcast meteorologist, I truly understand Mother Nature’s fury. I will never forget the weather events that unfolded on April 28, 2008 while WAVY-TV Chief Meteorologist Don Slater and I were on the air for over five straight hours. It was during this time that a strong EF3 tornado tore through Suffolk, VA leveling homes to their foundations. In fact, eleven tornadoes were confirmed in Virginia that day. EF3 tornadoes are extremely rare in Virginia. This event was a wake-up call for me and ignited my passion for natural disaster preparedness.
VDEM: What have you encountered in your outreach to the general public, as far as their knowledge, levels of preparedness, or attitudes toward emergencies?
Mrs. Va. Int’l: It depends what type of group I am speaking to. Children are like sponges and take in everything I say with curiosity and excitement. Some of my most “rewarding” presentations are to elementary school children. They really embrace activities like tornado drills and disaster Q&A games and they actually seem to know a lot about the different types of natural disasters. Ages 13-49 are a bit more difficult. They are busy with school or their jobs and daily responsibilities. I’ve spoken to this age group at Women’s expos and when I ask for a show of hands as to how many have a disaster supply kit, less than 25% of the hands went up… it was about the same percentage when I asked how many had a plan or had discussed a plan with their families. Some may have a false sense of immunity, but I think the majority of the people in this age group are just too busy to think about preparedness or cannot afford to buy the necessary supplies that make up a disaster kit. This is why kids who learn about preparedness are so important- they can take the message home to their parents and get the dialog started with this “hard-to-reach” demographic. The older generation
(50+) seems to know a bit more- perhaps because they have lived through a disaster- maybe they are a bit more cautious- or maybe because they are not as busy. I feel that this age group wants to learn more and are typically receptive to my presentations. I find that pet-owners are also especially interested in how they can better prepare their families and pets. Many groups are vulnerable but I am especially concerned about people with disabilities because they depend so much on the knowledge of their caregivers.
When I speak at an event, I stress that “it is only a matter of time before the next natural disaster strikes. It could be next week, next year or even 100 years from now, but no matter where you live, no one is immune from natural disasters.
VDEM: What have been some of your greatest accomplishments or memories in your efforts thus far to raise awareness?
Mrs. Va. Int’l: While I was working as a broadcast meteorologist at WAVY-TV in Norfolk, Virginia, I received an Emmy nomination for my report, “Get Down and Dirty With Tornado Safety.” In the video, I physically act out what to do in the event of a tornado warning if caught in a building or in a vehicle. I include this video in many of my Mrs. Virginia International presentations and enjoy teaching my audience tornado safety tips. I am extremely passionate about weather safety and preparedness and I know that the information in my video could very well save lives.
VDEM: Lots of our readers are local emergency managers. What advice would you give to those looking to encourage their communities to become more prepared?
Mrs. Va. Int’l.: Find liaisons to help reach certain audiences to teach about preparedness and make the presentations not only informative, but also fun. If it is “fun” to be involved, I feel that more people will be excited to join this movement. As Mrs. Virginia International- believe it or not- my crown and sash make people stop, ask questions and then actually listen to what I have to say. Typically, if someone is a bit different or out of the ordinary, that person will get more attention. Children look up to me as a role model- some even think I’m a real princess- and as a result, they absorb everything I teach them! Others look at me and think of the “pageant stereotype” and want to hear what I have to say because they want to hear if I’m going to say anything with substance! Then I have the opportunity to tell them my story- that I have a degree in Meteorology from Penn State University and that I have over a decade of TV broadcast meteorology experience. I always joke that, “yes, there is a brain under this crown.” I’m the real deal.
VDEM: Finally, are there any websites or actions you’d like readers to take to get more information or to be more involved?
Mrs. Va. Int’l.: Prepare NOW. Know your risk. Learn about the region you live in. What types of natural disasters are you vulnerable to? Start a conversation with your family, neighbors and employer…Do you have a disaster plan for you, your family and your pets? How about a disaster supply kit?” Take action and join FEMA’s National Preparedness Community and become an Ambassador with NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation- I’ve done both. Take an American Red Cross CPR/First Aid/AED course to learn life-saving skills! I recently renewed my certification.
Finally, I have more information about preparedness on my website: www.CherylNelsonVA.com cherylnelsonva.com and I always post on twitter @MrsVAIntl2014 and Facebook at MrsVirginiaInternational2014.