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Signs of the battering the region took from Florence last September might be receding, but many wounds still remain
The memory of Hurricane Florence lingers in the region’s twisted tree limbs, in the chain link fence that stands around Wilmington’s damaged Jervay housing neighborhood, and in countless other ways.
“There’s a lot of people in the county, to some extent, who are emotionally not over what happened during Florence. Their scars are still visible. … If there’s ever a year that we need a freebie, to get by without a storm, it’s this year,” said Stephen Still, New Hanover County’s emergency management director.
Meteorologists, health providers and emergency management officials, among others, are hoping Southeastern North Carolina emerges unscathed from hurricane season 2019 due to the resounding impacts Florence had on the region.
Hurricane season 2019
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a near-normal hurricane season is most likely. The prediction, offered with 70 percent confidence, is between nine and 15 named storms, of which four to eight could become hurricanes and two to four could reach at least Category 3.
Florence drew near the North Carolina coast as a major hurricane before weakening to a Category 1, lingering over the Cape Fear region, knocking trees out of sodden soil and causing catastrophic flooding en route to becoming the most expensive disaster in state history.
“That category is only one part of a storm,” said Steve Pfaff, a warning coordination meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s Wilmington office. “It talks nothing about storm surge, it talks nothing about a tornado that will eventually form.”
Florence likely provided a wake-up call to a region that has not seen a major hurricane — defined as Category 3 or higher — since Floyd in 1999, Still said. In that period, tens of thousands of new residents have flocked to Southeastern North Carolina, many unfamiliar with the threats of hurricanes, their perceptions shaped by storms that, until Florence, did not have a major effect on the area.
“Prior to Florence, I would say we had an issue with complacency,” Still said. “We had a lot of low-level storms that were low to moderate impact for New Hanover County. … I do not believe we have that complacency anymore.”
Still and other emergency management officials recognize the stress of a storm can have impacts that resonate months later, even as another hurricane season dawns.
“The stress that an event like Florence provides is a true and real thing,” Still said.
Resources available to survivors include Hope 4 NC, a free crisis counseling service that is being operated by Trillium until the storm’s year anniversary.
Darlene Webb, Trillium’s director of complex care coordination, said people who have seen mental illness stabilize frequently began suffering more after Florence. Causes varied, with some including the stress of leaving the area for a prolonged period without access to treatment and others including living in packed homes due to displacements.
“It’s been across the spectrum of all the populations we serve,” Webb said, adding people who suffer with substance disorders are also relapsing after the storm.
But those most impacted by the storm, Webb said, were children, with suffering increasing in younger children. Those who are younger than 13 often see higher impacts, because they are aware of stress among adults in the household but do not yet have the tools to address it.
“What we know about children is they don’t have the repertoire or the coping skills of knowing they’re going to get through something that’s very difficult,” Webb said.
Hope 4 NC links people with care no matter their insurance situations, including a mobile crisis team that covers Trillium’s entire 26-county region.
When asked what families should be doing now to prepare for hurricane season, Webb said to gather water and flashlights, as well as ensure a plan is in place. Additionally, she said to check in with your support system.
“Outreach to extended family and friends that might live outside the area is probably key, and do it now,” Webb said.
Pfaff, the weather service meteorologist, is concerned that officials and residents tend to be good at preparing for the disasters they have seen before, but not necessarily for those that have receded into the past.
“We don’t want to walk around thinking, ‘We’ve been through storms and they haven’t been a big deal,’ because if we get another Hazel or Hugo type of storm, people are going to learn again if we don’t prepare to the fullest,” Pfaff said.
It is important, he added, for people to know what dangers are in the area where they live. In other words, someone on the coast should be carefully watching storm surge predictions, while someone living in a flat, wooded area may want to keep abreast of the predicted tornado threat.
“There’s no silver bullet with hurricane preparation for everybody,” Pfaff said.
Still’s advice as far as hurricane preparation included three steps: First, have a plan for any emergency event, be it a hurricane or another kind of disaster. Second, have a preparedness kit that includes everything you would grab if you had only 10 minutes to evacuate the house. Third, have a plan to stay informed in a severe weather event.
The New Hanover County is taking its own steps, including a four-day hurricane exercise, as well as integrating the city and county emergency operations centers featuring all local law enforcement, fire and emergency agencies.
“We really try to capitalize on all the things that we learned during Florence and make adjustments in our plans,” Still said, later adding residents throughout the region are undergoing the same steps with their families.
The Wilmington Area Rebuilding Ministry (WARM) was founded after 1996’s twin hurricanes of Bertha and Fran, and in recent years its staff members have had to refamiliarize themselves with disaster relief funding. The agency’s mission is to rebuild and repair owner-occupied homes that have suffered damage.
“Since the hurricane, our case management aspect of what we do has really gone to the next level because our staff has had to learn all about (the Federal Emergency Management Agency),” said JC Lyle, WARM’s executive director.
While all three counties suffered in distinct ways, Lyle said, Pender’s damage from the flooded Black and Northeast Cape Fear rivers has proven the most difficult to address. And, she added, the people who are suffering impacts now are the same ones who were struggling before Florence.
“The inequality gap has just widened,” Lyle said, noting people in the middle or upper class were more likely to have insurance.
Furthermore, in rebuilding, much of WARM’s clientele is older or has accessibility concerns. One client, Lyle said, had multiple sclerosis, and WARM hurried to finish her home because the client was living with her sister, whose residence was not equipped for her.
As the recovery continues, Lyle added, it is important to keep other people’s struggles in mind.
“FEMA helps in the emergency phase and gives the people a little boost,” Lyle said. “But that’s not what people need. We need each other.”
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