Hurricane Florence: What did we learn?

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Powerful storms can’t be stopped from impacting Eastern N.C., but officials say there are steps that can be taken to better prepare for them — especially in the era of climate change

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — When Hurricane Florence was still offshore and it’s final landing spot in Eastern North Carolina still unknown, Wilmington officials hunkered down like everyone else to await the storm’s arrival.

But there was a problem.

The hurricane was a Category 4 monster, the most northerly Cat 4 storm ever recorded, packing winds of 130 mph. But the Port City doesn’t have a single government building that can withstand a storm of that strength — never mind a Cat 5 hurricane that some feared Florence would become as it drew strength from the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

“One of the significant outcomes arising from post-Florence staff debriefings is the need for there to be a building that can withstand 150 mph for essential staff. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to ask staff members to stay — in lieu of evacuating — who are concerned about their own safety,” Amy Beatty, Wilmington’s community services director, wrote in an email after the storm.

In hindsight, it was Florence’s rains that did more damage than its winds, which had weakened to a Category 1 with winds of 90 mph, made landfall at Wrightsville Beach.

Wilmington is working to rectify that situation, tweaking plans for a new gym at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center on Eighth Street to build it to withstand Cat 5 winds.

While a relatively small change, the enhanced gymnasium is just one of the numerous changes prompted by and lessons learned from Florence, which saw record-setting rainfall fall across much of the region and brought back worrying memories for many of 1999’s Hurricane Floyd and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

From building better lines of communication to “hardening” important transportation and other infrastructure, officials are using the region’s recent disaster experiences to improve how they will prepare and respond to future storms.

“We learned a lot from Florence, unfortunately,” said Steven Still, New Hanover County’s emergency management director.

But it’s a slow and expensive process. It also is one that can draw time and resources away from day-to-day operations.

“You get so focused on disaster and disaster recovery that you are not able to be creative and innovative to do the normal kinds of operational projects and work that has to be done,” said Pender County Manager Randell Woodruff. “It is probably less of an issue for Brunswick or New Hanover or the City of Wilmington because they are a lot bigger than we are, but even with them, if all they are doing is spending all of their money on resiliency and mitigating flooding and all these other issues, how are they going to deal with all the projects that this region needs?”

Still, officials said they need to do what they can, when they can, to create a more storm-resilient community.

“When you know how bad it can get, you know how to prepare for it,” said New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White.



The word was repeated by speaker after speaker Tuesday as top state and transportation officials gathered to inaugurate a new bridge on U.S. 421 at the New Hanover-Pender county line. The stretch of highway had been washed out during Florence after the dam holding Sutton Lake was breached by the rising floodwaters. With Interstate 40 and U.S. 17 flooded and impassable, the severed roadway link added to the isolation of Wilmington and other coastal communities felt immediately after the hurricane.

That led to shortages of supplies and frustration of residents who had evacuated trying to return home and those marooned in and around the Port City.

This wasn’t the first time Wilmington had been severed from the rest of the state after a hurricane swamped Eastern North Carolina. Hurricane Matthew in 2016 also left many major arteries across the region impassable, including nearly 100 miles of I-95 and I-40.

Worried about the increased intensity of storms coming out of the tropics and learning from repeated flooding events in the same areas, officials are learning and adapting.

“We are going to have to build and rebuild with the storms we’re getting today and will get, not the storms we did get,” said Mike Fox, chairman of the N.C. Board of Transportation.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who also was at Tuesday’s event, reiterated that message.

“We’re rebuilding not just stronger, but smarter,” he said.

In the case of the new U.S. 421 bridge, the $8 million project replaces a large culvert with a pair of 560-foot bridges that have much more capacity to handle high volumes of water raging through the area.

State and local officials have repeatedly said they can no longer simply rebuild and replace broken or old infrastructure, but need to build it with storms in mind.

That’s led to improvements to make the region’s power grid being “hardened” and old culverts and pipes across the region being up-gauged when they are replaced or repaired. Agencies across the region also are acquiring added swift-water rescue capabilities and vehicles that have the ground clearance to travel on flooded roadways.

And what about climate change?

Cooper said there’s no doubt that climate change is impacting weather patterns and adding to the challenges of planning for and dealing with more intense — and potentially frequent — hurricanes, with those impacts including stronger stormsurge and increased sea-level rise.

“It’s a fact of life now,” he said.

Florence gone, far from forgotten: Click here for previous StarNews stories, editorials and letters about Hurricane Florence and its impact.


With Wilmington largely isolated immediately after Florence and power out to most residents, the hunt for supplies — from gasoline to ice to a hot meal — often became like something from “The Hunger Games.”

Social media and word of mouth became key sources of information — even if they fact themselves were often dubious at best.

When it was reported a store was opening or supplies were available, chaos often ensued.

In more than one case, law enforcement had to be deployed to gas stations or supermarkets running on generator power to keep order.

Military helicopters and even boats were pressed into service to bring needed supplies to coastal areas cut off by Florence’s historic floodwaters.

Government agencies weren’t immune from the supply woes. At one point, the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) warned that it could be forced to shut down its water treatment plant if it didn’t get more fuel.

In the wake of Florence, officials realized they needed to plan better for the potential of being cut off from outside suppliers for an extended period of time.

White said he believed New Hanover County was pretty well supplied with emergency supplies before Florence hit.

“But an event of that magnitude exposed us and taught us that we needed to be even better prepared than we were,” he said.

Still said New Hanover County has revamped how it stocks supplies and works with its outside contractors to make sure adequate food and fuel stocks are pre-positioned in places where they are available quickly and easily.

He added that many of those measures to ramp up the pre-storm preparations were put into place for last week’s Hurricane Dorian, although thankfully they weren’t needed.

“There’s nothing wrong with being over prepared,” White said, “even if it isn’t needed.”

Evacuations and housing

When Gov. Cooper announced a mandatory evacuation of all of the state’s barrier islands, it caught many local officials by surprise.

Some towns and counties had already issued voluntary evacuation orders, with some making it mandatory for visitors.

But imposing a mandatory evacuation is a time-consuming and costly affair — especially for communities that rely on tourists for their economic lifeblood.

It’s also something that’s largely unenforceable, although officials can turn up the pressure by asking those who dig in their heels for their next of kin and stating that any 911 calls won’t be responded to during the hurricane.

Counties across the region post-Florence reviewed their shelter plans, including whether they had enough capacity and if they were in the right locations. One key finding was the need to make sure the schools being used as shelters were safe themselves. Generators, or lack there of, also was another source of concern.

But an even bigger headache for local officials emerged after Florence was long gone and the shelters had closed.

Tom Collins, emergency management director for Pender County, said one of the major lessons of Florence and the one that is potentially one of the most expensive to address is that the region doesn’t have sufficient housing in which to shelter people who have been displaced by storms — both short- and long-term.

“That’s going to take local, state and federal folks to figure that issue out,” he said. “That takes money, it takes property, it takes building the capacity. There are things we can look at that will be less expensive and short term, but what is the best solution? That is something that is going to take a lot of people to sit down and hash out.”

Communications and planning

In a disaster situation, sometimes rumor is as big an enemy for local officials as the event itself.

New Hanover’s Still said one of the surprising outcomes of Florence was just how many folks don’t have access to social media or traditional media news sources.

“We learned pretty quickly that’s one thing we really need to work on, and we’ve put a lot of time into trying to improve our channels of communication to those segments of our population,” he said.

During the lead up to Dorian, county officials pro-actively reached out to community agencies and faith-based organizations to gauge the needs and concerns of their constituents. Then, when it came to move people out of harms way, they used those same organizations to spread the word — which prompted some churches to go door-to-door to make sure they got the message.

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In Pender County, the limits of modern technology as a means of communicating also came to light.

Collins said great advances have been made in forecast and communications technology, but that doesn’t mean everyplace has them. Rural western Pender, he said, is a good example.

“One of the things we are looking at is going back to some simple technologies, like AM radio, to get information out,” Collins said. “Information is critical, no matter how it gets to people.”

As local officials look to improve messaging within their communities, one area where it seems to be

White said the lines of communication between the local level and state officials in Raleigh and federal officials in Washington has improved dramatically over the years — especially with the recent hurricanes.

“It’s just unfortunate it’s that way because we’ve had to go through all these awful experiences,” he said.

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