HURRICANE FLORENCE: Lessons learned from the storm

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Local, state and federal officials discuss what went right, wrong and needs improvement

WILMINGTON — Highlights of response to Hurricane Florence, what went right, went wrong and what can be improved comprised the first post-storm discussion among the region’s local, state and federal leaders held Tuesday at the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

“We hope this is the beginning of a few conversations with our local delegation on how to recover from the storm … and also to begin preparing for then next storm,” said Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Commissioners.

“It’s good we’re getting together to talk about these things,” said state Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover. “There is a lot.”

Here are some of the highlights of Tuesday’s meeting:

What went right

Years of projects to nourish the region’s beaches meant they were able to withstand the storm’s initial impacts of wind and storm surge, coastal mayors said.

“We came through pretty unscathed,” Carolina Beach Mayor Joe Benson said.

Wrightsville Beach Mayor Bill Blair said, though, that the beach was eroded by the storm and that the town is not scheduled for another beach nourishment project for several more years. He said state or federal funding for an emergency project may be necessary.

“We’re exposed,” Blair said.

Several officials lauded the work done throughout the storm by the New Hanover County Emergency Operations Center, which tracked the storm, dispatched emergency responses, provided updates, coordinated shelters and relief efforts and more, something that became more acute as the region’s roads were closed into and out of the county.

“Little did we know we would become an island here in Wilmington,” said N.C. Rep. Holly Grange, R-New Hanover.

And World Central Kitchen, through a network of volunteers, served nearly 100,000 meals to residents, workers and volunteers throughout the storm and its aftermath.

“Had they not come in, it would have been a lot worse for our community,” said New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield.

What went wrong

The meeting wasn’t just pats on the back, as officials noticed some problems as well.

Sewer systems overflowed, spilling millions of gallons of partially untreated water into the Cape Fear River. Some of the county’s shelters at schools suffered damage, prompting evacuees to be moved.

“People were already traumatized enough from being plucked from the water and placed in a building only to be moved,” said N.C. Rep. Deb Butler, D-New Hanover.

And the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) nearly ran out of fuel for a generator, prompting the utility to warn people that it may not be able to provide water as the storm raged overhead. Shortly after that announcement, though, county officials announced a plan to bring fuel in, prompting criticism that CFPUA had issued its warning too quickly.

Improvements and next steps

The N.C. General Assembly will meet soon to decide primarily how to handle lost school days and whether to allow teachers to be paid without using personal time off or vacation time for missed days during the storm.

Following that, said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, he would like to see state and federal assistance to better plan for fuel shortages, drainage to prevent flooding as much as possible and to provide a safer evacuation for the elderly. He noted that Hurricane Florence, already shaping up as one of the state’s costliest and most destructive hurricanes, made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane.

“If (Florence) had come in as a Category 4 or 5, we’d have had a real mess on our hands,” Saffo said. “There needs to be some evaluations of these things, because we’re going to see more of these storm events.”

White said Tuesday’s discussion should be considered a good start.

“We’ve all used the word ‘improvement,'” he said. “Let’s do what we can to improve things so we’re better prepared for the next natural disaster.”

Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or