What lessons did Florence teach us?

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Local leaders give their views

Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear riverkeeper: 1. Climate change is real. 99 percent of scientists agree. These severe weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense. We would be naive to pretend otherwise, and we would be reckless and foolish to not plan for climate change and do everything we can to slow and/or reverse its impacts. 2. Putting major sources of pollution in floodplains, things like factory farms, sewage treatment plants, coal ash ponds, or chemical storage areas, will mean that during flooding events the pollution created or stored in those areas will make it into streams and rivers, and eventually the ocean, where it will mix together and have serious impacts on water quality. 3. Water quality impacts from storms like Florence have countless impacts on our lives. We need to monetize those impacts and consider them when decision makers try to create reckless and short-sighted policy and development that ignore these costs.

Craig Caster, mayor of Boiling Spring Lakes: The city was fortunate in that while we suffered significant infrastructure damage, that damage did not lead to any loss of life of our residents. Roads and dams can and will be repaired and hopefully to a better standard than when damaged. I would like to thank both Duke Power and Brunswick County Department of Utilities for their quick response to the damage their utilities received. No one would have anticipated having water and power back on within a week of a storm of this magnitude. Also, I would like to thank Congressman Rouzer, N.C. Sen. Rabon, N.C. Rep. Iler, and the mayors of the surrounding cities for the tremendous support they provided our city. Boiling Spring Lakes is now working with Brunswick County Emergency Management and FEMA to get our damaged infrastructure repaired. Contractors hired by the city are currently removing storm debris and it is our hope that within two years water will once again be in our lakes after the loss of Sanford Dam.

Doug Medlin, Surf City mayor: We did use past experiences that made some aspects easier. Our Emergency Operations Center operated a lot smoother with the help of more tech-savvy employees. Our essential personnel were housed together, which helped with decision making. Jones Onslow Electric had crews lined up for entry as soon as the wind subsided and Surf City utilities were responding as lines were cleared. DRC Emergency Services started clearing roads within a short time. Organization before and after the hurricane is the key and every storm is unique, which always provides a learning lesson. Florence came through and caused some damage, but the Surf City community is strong, supportive and resilient.

Steven Pfaff, National Weather Service: A segment of the public still does not understand the power of flowing water and continues to take risks, as seen by the high number of people killed while driving through flooded areas. We saw similar issues during Matthew in 2016 and the 2015 historic South Carolina floods. People also remained focused on the Saffir-Simpson scale for their decision making instead of what the various storm surge, wind, tornado, and inland flooding impacts mean to where they live. Saffir-Simpson scale only attributes the wind hazard, and we have had many storms where flooding was the dominant impact. Even Hurricane Sandy made landfall as a Category 1, but yet it still produced catastrophic storm surge in New York and New Jersey.

Claude Pope, owner with his wife, Melissa, of the Maritime Market on Bald Head Island: Bald Head Island received over 35 inches of rain, and with the water table fully saturated, the deluge pooled in some areas up to 5 feet deep — submerging garages, golf carts and critical electrical and sewer infrastructure while making the roads impassable. Without power to run the sewer pumping stations, homes become essentially uninhabitable, and the blockage of roadways by deep water means that homeowners could not return quickly enough to assess or mitigate damage to their homes, and thus exacerbating the potential for degradation due to mold or persistent unattended water penetration. Power could not be restored until floodwaters receded enough to expose and repair the transformers. The biggest lesson learned is that nothing happens until the floodwaters are removed. Once removed and power is restored, everything else falls into place, so anything we can do to accelerate the removal of floodwaters allows homeowners to return quicker and begin their own mitigation efforts.

Bill Saffo, Wilmington mayor: One thing for sure, to refer to it just as a big one is an understatement. It was wet, big, full of hot air and relentless. Nonetheless, we survived and will recover and grow. Probably the biggest lessons for me were all positive. They included that under duress, people wanting and helping out; I saw neighborhoods trying to bounce back on their own. You saw public servants going beyond the simple call of duty to protecting, serving and helping and rebuilding our community. You saw seamless inter-agency collaboration and one upbeat team getting the job done. Those things serve as a warm reminder to me of why I call this place home. I also learned that as a coastal community we need to re-double our efforts to build infrastructure that can last, withstanding continuous winds of over 100 mph and strong storm surge. We have to continue to build effective relationships with our businesses, our federal and state leaders and our citizens to assure we are making every effort to put the best of our community in the minds and hearts of those who come to visit, spend money and enjoy our great quality of life. We must make sure we do everything in our powers to reassure the public that we persevered through Florence, the big one, and we are coming back stronger.

Art Sauer, associate pastor of Youth and Education, Riley’s Creek Baptist Church in Rocky Point, which like many churches has been active in hurricane relief efforts: The biggest lesson we as a church learned from Florence is God can use any situation and create unity from it. Our congregation has worked tirelessly with the community of churches in the area and all over the U.S. the past couple of weeks. We were able to be used by God for incredible things together. We simply needed to forget our own circumstances and focus on other people in need. God accomplished way more through us together being weak than we ever thought we could on our own.

Woody White, New Hanover County commissioners chairman: Florence taught us (reminded us, really) that we all do better when we work together than we do when we think only of ourselves. She taught us that real problems are solvable, and that valuable time is wasted if you spend time complaining about them, instead of focusing on how to fix them. Specifically, I learned of the tremendous value that exists in the planning and preparing that goes on, throughout the year, in simulated training exercises. These “run throughs” expose weaknesses in our systems, and allow us to refine our responses before the crisis is on us. Most importantly, Florence has reminded me of the always-present optimism in mankind, and the endless abundance of charity and good will that is in our community.

Frank Williams, Brunswick County commissioners chairman: Hurricane Florence was a beast. Her unprecedented rainfall breached the dam in Boiling Spring Lakes causing flooding in unexpected areas throughout Brunswick County. Our entire emergency response team performed admirably, underscoring the importance of having the right people in the right roles. As an elected official dealing with my first (and hopefully last) disaster of this magnitude, Florence drove home several lessons: The importance of communicating accurate information and combating misinformation. Supporting our staff while staying out of their way and letting them do their jobs. The event isn’t over when the rain stops and the sun comes out. People want to help after the storm, and donations and volunteers must be matched with real needs in affected areas. FEMA is far too confusing to the average citizen. This list could go on and on. We must heed Florence’s lessons, and we must stay focused on recovery after the national media moves on.

Ed Woolverton, president and CEO of Downtown Wilmington Inc.: From WDI’s perspective, the hurricane lessons focus on contact information, speed and agility. While we have contact information for property owners and businesses, much of the data is based on a street address, business phone number and business email address. We need to expand our database to obtain personal email addresses and/or mobile phone numbers for more property owners and business owners in order to improve communications. Speed and agility are inter-related. Our staff was checking Downtown before the storm even ended so we could quickly obtain assessments and communicate with the right people to address everything from removing debris to helping displaced businesses find a new, temporary location. We were also agile enough to immediately shift our work program in new directions to help develop and implement recovery efforts, such as the sandbag acquisition and distribution initiative and the OverFlo campaign. The WDI board of directors provided the capacity and direction to move – fast. Beyond our concerns, I feel compelled to mention county and city leadership. County and city leaders were well prepared and overall did an outstanding job. Media communications prior to the storm were frequent and informative. Once wind subsided enough, crews were out from the city, county, Duke Energy and pre-hired private contractors. Many items were staged and ready to go, including the distribution centers for MRE’s, tarps and water. They also understood FEMA protocols and documentation so that recovery could move faster.

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to the officials who contributed to this story, and to the citizens who have pitched in to help after the storm.