HURRICANE FLORENCE: Building upon lessons from the storm

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Historic storm brought many challenges to the region; now officials want to learn from them

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — As Wilmington and its surrounding areas continue to limp back to normal, the process of unpacking the historic disaster that was Hurricane Florence has begun.

Between Sept. 13 and Sept. 17, the storm dropped at least 24 inches of rain across the Cape Fear region, causing floodwaters to inundate homes, breach dams and render major roads impassable. Trees and limbs across the region were brought crashing to the ground by the storm’s winds, with gusts recorded at 105 mph.

Local officials have begun to unpack some of the lessons learned during the storm and its aftermath, trying to chart a path forward for a region that remains perpetually vulnerable to hurricanes. Here are some of the lessons they learned.

Need for affordable housing

As Florence made landfall Sept. 14, it had gusts as high as 105 mph, downing trees and causing damage to roofs at homes that later suffered days of heavy rains.

Nearly a thousand people living in apartments have been displaced by damage to those facilities alone, calling in to question the region’s affordable housing policies.

“We can’t pay for everybody’s houses, but we should be able to put a roof over their heads until they figure out what to do,” said Jody Wainio, a Wilmington real estate agent and vice chair of the Cape Fear Housing Coalition.

According to a 2017 presentation from an ad hoc committee on affordable housing, there are 32,000 households in Wilmington and New Hanover County that pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

“We were already in a crisis before the storm ever hit, and it’s taken way too much time for the city and county governments to put together an affordable housing task force, a permanent committee, a housing trust fund and those kinds of things that would help us build more units,” Wainio said.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo agreed that further action has to be taken regarding affordable housing. Many who suffered major damage to their homes tried to rent hotel rooms already being occupied by the scores of relief workers.

“I want to take a look at some point in time in the very near future at what we can do together,” he said.


Finding some way to subsidize affordable housing was among the approaches Saffo discussed, with possibilities including swapping infrastructure for a set amount of affordable housing.

“People are looking for a magic bullet. There’s not a magic bullet,” the mayor said.

Wilmington’s remaining vacant land is likely to remain expensive, Saffo said, which is why more affordable homes can be found in outlying areas such as Brunswick and Pender counties.

“There’s areas around town that you can definitely put it in,” he said, “but you’re going to have to subsidize part of that.”

Communicating during the storm

As Florence hovered over Southeastern North Carolina last month, it dropped enough rain to turn Brunswick County into three separate islands, with residents in some areas such as Boiling Spring Lakes and Southport also losing water service.

Frank Williams, chairman of the Brunswick County Commissioners, said, “I’m a county commissioner and I was without TV, without internet and without mobile data for four days, so I was basically stranded on an island.”

Koi Lewter and other residents of Boiling Spring Lakes were also stranded during their storm, trapped without power and water for days.

“I didn’t think the storm was going to be that bad and hit when it did until two days before it hit,” she said.

At that point, it was too late for Lewter and her husband to evacuate, especially because they have cats and dogs.

Williams recommended residents sign up to receive email alerts and updates from local governments such as the county and whatever municipality they reside in. The county also notified residents of Florence using the Code Red emergency alert system.

During the storm, Williams said he found the best way to receive updates was via text message because they didn’t use as much of his cell phone battery as a phone call.

“Don’t make the mistake I made,” he said, “which was ordering your backup batteries for your cell phone so late that they don’t come until after the storm.”

Preparing to be cut off

As floodwaters rose throughout the region, Wilmington was cut off from outside aid for several days. Interstate 40 just north of the New Hanover County Line, for instance, was flooded from Sept. 15 until Sept. 21.

“We need to find other ways to get supplies into the city once the storm passes,” Saffo said, “because we now know without a doubt that if we have 17 inches of rain and up, the Cape Fear River, the Black River and all the rivers that surround the community further west, north and south are going to flood.”

After Florence passed, it was not uncommon to see gas lines snaking around major Wilmington streets under the watchful eye of a police officer or sheriff’s deputy.

It is important, Saffo said, not only to have supplies pre-positioned, but also to have set locations for helicopters to additional necessities and for visiting nonprofits and aid groups to set up operations.

The region’s emergency officials were largely prepared for a catastrophic storm, said Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Commissioners. Much of that, White said, can be attributed to the county’s emergency management department conduction quarterly training exercises that have identified areas to fix.

Furthermore, the emergency operations centers in both Brunswick and New Hanover were operational for 2016’s Hurricane Matthew even though the counties ultimately didn’t suffer significant damage from that storm. Being live, though, gave them a chance to become familiar with systems in the event of a storm with more significant local impacts.

“Since this disaster did actually hit us and it was catastrophic,” White said, “we reverted back to the experiences we had in the drills and in the non-catastrophic event planning over the years. It just disciplines the emergency response process and fleshes out problems.”

Nonprofit coordination

While nonprofit organizations wanted to help, Saffo said, their leaders were often calling him or White to see where they should set up.

“We were getting calls as (organizations) were rolling in here — where do you want us to go, where you want us to set up? … There were groups that were coming in that I had no idea who they were, they were just rolling in here,” Saffo said.

White agreed that coordinating nonprofits was an area for potential improvement, as resources flowed into New Hanover County without a clear plan for distribution or a nonprofit coordinator’s presence in the emergency operations center.

“All this help and recovery was starting to pour into our community even while the storm was still raging,” White said. “We could have done a better job harnessing the volunteer efforts and distributing them quicker to the community once the storm passed.”

In the future, he said, county emergency management will likely be more active in the volunteer effort and the organization that oversees the efforts will have a presence in the emergency operations center.

“It makes a huge difference being in that room when something comes up,” White said.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at