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It was the hurricane that wouldn’t go away — and on the second anniversary of its landfall here, in many ways Florence is still with us
WILMINGTON — Twisted branches and sawed-up hunks of tree trunks were piled along Myrtle Grove Road recently, high enough to obscure the fronts of homes. It was a scene reminiscent of two years ago, when Hurricane Florence slammed into the region, slowed to a crawl and proceeded to let loose with days of torrential, windblown rain.
Those piles, of course, were the result of Hurricane Isaias, not Florence. But although most of the Florence debris is gone, the impact of the area’s worst storm since 1954’s Hazel — perhaps its worst ever — lives on, not only from the damage that remains, but in how the area prepares for — and even thinks about — hurricanes.
The mounds of debris in Myrtle Grove represent more than hurricane deja vu. They are a tangible reminder of a post-Florence Wilmington — a Wilmington in which Michael roared by before the Florence recovery barely had begun; a Wilmington that a year later saw Dorian blow by; and an area that suffered a surprisingly strong punch from Isaias last month.
While the Wilmington region has become hurricane-savvy, it’s also hurricane-weary.
The rain penetrated everything
Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14, 2018, as a Category 1 hurricane. While the storm surge caused major damage along the coast, slow-moving Florence dumped record-breaking amounts of rain over several days as it moved inland. As Florence roared, its strong winds pushed the water on the ground into buildings and blew its falling rain horizontally into structures, often into unseen places.
That water intrusion resulted in extensive damage that often was not evident until mold began to grow, resulting in uninhabitable homes, apartment complexes and businesses. Area schools were closed not for days, but for weeks.
Other damage was highly visible, such as the collapse of the Boiling Spring Lakes dams in Brunswick County, which provided some of the most dramatic images from the storm.
Unfortunately, what once was viewed as a feasible plan to rebuild the dams has itself collapsed. The initial $18 million project with a December 2020 completion date now has a $30 million price tag and work is not expected to begin until early next year, according to City Manager Jeff Repp.
Nearly 18 months after sustaining the state’s largest highway washout from Florence, in March the N.C. Department of Transportation finished work on the second of two 562-feet, two-lane bridges on U.S. 421 over Fishing Creek, at the New Hanover-Pender county line.
Two years post-Florence, area government officials and other leaders still are dealing with the storm’s impact as well as pursuing strategies to minimize the type of damage and disruptions future storms might cause — storms that, as recent trends suggest, appear likely to keep coming.
New Hanover County
Like many other organizations, after the immediate emergency ended New Hanover County began taking a systematic look at its response to Florence and developed a long-term recovery plan, both of which are available online.
The Hurricane Florence After Action Report identified communications as a key area for improvement — including communications with county staff, partner organizations, and the public. With more than 1,500 employees operating for 21 days under a state of emergency, some employees said they were confused about their roles and who they reported to.
“We were ready and willing to serve, but there wasn’t a clear direction,” one employee said in the feedback the county solicited.
Other areas identified for improvement included operations guidelines and policies and emergency-response staffing and training.
While addressing those specific areas, the county also made some major organizational changes, including making Emergency Management and the 911 center separate departments. An Office of Recovery and Resilience was formed and has been a vital part of subsequent hurricane responses as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, county spokesperson Kate Oelslager said.
As part of the long-term recovery plan, the county is in the early stages of developing stormwater service (something already in place in Wilmington), clearing debris from watersheds, and making county facilities more storm-resilient.
“A lot of work has happened, but we expect it to take five or more years to fully recover from Hurricane Florence,” Oelslager told the StarNews.
City leaders said they’ve learned not only that a healthy emergency fund is needed (money often has to be spent before reimbursements come in), but also that contracts for outside services such as debris removal need to be in place and ready to be enacted. Equipment and other resources also need to be “pre-staged” well in advance, city spokesperson Dylan Lee said.
“The long duration of (Florence) underscored the need for redundancy in everything — staff, supplies, partnerships and contingencies,” Lee said.
The rain-inundated city (26.5 inches fell at the airport) also had to make a host of drainage repairs and improvements in places such as River Road, the Municipal Golf Course area and elsewhere.
“There are many drainage projects still in the works,” Lee said.
Work also is underway and/or planned to make city hall and the convention center more storm-resilient.
One very visible “blow” to Wilmington was the thousands of trees Florence toppled or damaged. The city and several partners are about to launch a tree-planting initiative, with details coming later this month.
Lee said the city also is focusing on strategic pruning, root protection and other maintenance to keep trees in public areas healthier and more likely to survive a storm.
Hurricane Florence took an especially heavy toll at UNCW. With scores of towering pines standing in the often-wet-and-loose soil of the the 660-acred of low-lying grounds, the hurricane toppled so many trees it made even basic access unsafe and, for some parts of campus, nearly impossible.
“The university has weathered many storms before, but it has never suffered the extent of the damage that hurricane Florence wrought,” the Office of University Relations wrote in an article published soon after Florence.
Of the school’s 100 main buildings, 80% received at least minor damage. But it was the major damage to buildings that took a big toll, according to Mark Morgan, an associate vice chancellor in charge of facilities.
“We had 18 significantly damaged buildings: Dobo, Leutze, Cameron, Cornerstone, Galloway and all 13 University Apartments,” Morgan said. The University Apartments complex had to be torn down.
Dobo Hall, a science building with sensitive, high-tech lab equipment, lost part of its roof and was inundated with rain. Mobile units had to be brought in to house classes, faculty and laboratories while extensive renovation work was done.
Two years later, there’s good news to report: Although a few “punch-list” items remain, the 110,000-square-foot building reopened in July, said Miles Lackey, vice chancellor for business affairs.
“It’s been a challenging two years,” Lackey said, adding that the renovated building is in much better shape than it was pre-Florence and better suited to withstand a future hurricane.
Lackey said Florence taught some important lessons that the university quickly embraced. One was the need for an updated emergency-operations and resiliency plan, which, ironically was put to the test early when Hurricane Dorian hit the area a year after Florence. Dorian’s impact was minimal, but Lackey said the hurricane provided a great chance for UNCW officials to witness the revamped plans in action.
“It was remarkable to see how we were able to maintain services and meet the needs of students,” he said.
Local school systems
Eddie Anderson, New Hanover Schools’ assistant superintendent for operations, doesn’t mince words about the storm’s impact, both in the damage to buildings but also the disruption in class time.
“The overall extent of damage from Hurricane Florence was devastating,” Anderson said. “We had damage at every school facility.”
As was common across the region, the lingering, windblown rain and water infiltrated buildings and sparked extensive, often out of view mold growth. The widespread damage kept New Hanover schools closed 17 days. It was worse in Pender and Brunswick, where students missed 21 and 19 days, respectively.
Although New Hanover Schools has repaired all the damage and taken some steps to improve resiliency, much more is needed to ensure schools can weather storms without the major disruptions to class time caused by Florence. It’s a challenge the entire region faces.
“The biggest need for NHCS facilities is renovation and modernization of our older buildings,” Anderson said. “We have many buildings where the structure, roofs, equipment, and other building systems have exceeded their life expectancy.”
“These buildings are most vulnerable in extreme weather conditions,” he added. “A comprehensive approach to building improvement would better prepare our buildings for future storms.”
New Hanover Regional Medical Center
Not all the stories from Florence involved bad news. As it became obvious that so many people would have to relocate to shelters — perhaps for multiple days — NHRMC officials realized shelters for the general public were neither equipped or staffed to house people with complicated medical conditions. Working with New Hanover Schools, NHRMC quickly transformed Codington Elementary into a temporary medical shelter.
Based on that experience, the State Medical Assistance Team unit based at NHRMC has since distributed supplies to area counties so they can quickly open special-needs shelters when needed.
A brief scare over its water supply (the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority announced the area was at risk of losing water service) prompted NHRMC to install a backup groundwater well.
(In response to Florence and the initial failure of its generator fuel supply plan, CFPUA, among other things, purchased a 2,800-gallon fuel truck and increased fuel storage capacity at strategic locations.)
NHRMC also adjusted its emergency operations timeline to begin 120 hours before an expected landfall — adding another day for preparations.
Spokesperson Julian March said all Florence-related structural damage has been repaired except for areas that were damaged but are being renovated for another use.
Reporter Scott Nunn can be reached at 910-343-2272 or Scott.Nunn@StarNewsOnline.com.