For many years Eastern North Carolina residents have watched hurricane forecasts with an eye on the category of the storm and whether the strength of the winds would make it a “major” storm.
Hurricane Florence was a reminder that a hurricane’s wind speeds are only part of the story.
As another hurricane season begins, Onslow County Emergency Services Director Norman Bryson said when the next storm threatens the North Carolina coast the county’s emergency services and partners want to be sure the public has as much information as possible on potential impacts.
“For years people have said category, category, category, which is only the wind speeds,” Bryson said. “Florence was a rain event. When we talk about hurricanes and tropical storms we can’t just talk category, we have to talk about storm surge, rain and other factors.”
Bryson said there are four key areas of storm impacts they will focus on: category of winds (Saffir Simpson scale), storm surge forecast, rainfall amount, and duration of the storm.
Hurricane Florence last year dropped about 40 inches of rain as it hovered over the area for several days, creating a mix of river flooding and flooding from storm surge.
After doing some research, Bryson found Onslow County has seen storms with even higher rainfall amounts. A storm 100 years ago brought 56 inches of rain to areas along the White Oak River.
As area residents prepare their emergency kits with supplies, he recommends using sites like readync.org to gather the supplies they need. And while it is often said to prepare for what you will need for three days, Bryson said they recommend people prepare to be on their own for at least seven days.
The duration of a storm and amount of flooding or amount of wind damage sustained all add to challenges of getting resources where needed after the storm.
Jacksonville Director of Public Safety Mike Yaniero said an after-action review was done to look back at Hurricane Florence and the city is always looking at ways to improve services to citizens, including response to hurricanes.
“Overall I think the city performed admirable during Hurricane Florence, but we can always do better,” Yaniero said.
Looking back, it was after Hurricane Katrina that the city looked at the best way to design the current public safety building to withstand a major hurricane.
“If you look back at the presentation to commissioners, we talked about Katrina and there was a picture of the police department there destroyed,” Yaniero recalled.
The building fared well during Florence and they were able to house their staff as well as shelter a group of residents who needed a place to stay after damage to the hotel they were staying in.
Still, Yaniero said, there were areas they found that needed to be improved.
He said the city has applied for a Duke Energy grant for upgrades in technology and other equipment.
For instance, Yaniero said, they have regular communication between the city emergency operation center and county EOC but they want to upgrade technology to have a continuous video link between the two.
“Being able to link the two together so there is a continuous feed, improving our technology, those are also things we can look at,” Yaniero said.
Yaniero said they are also looking at additional radio communication, which was available throughout the storm, and the need for additional generators.
Generators, he said, can be used for many reasons while electricity is out, from operating shelters and water pumps to traffic safety once the public is able to get out after the storm.
“A generator helped with traffic signals,” Yaniero said. “We were able to provide some normalcy to the community after the storm as it helped us to move traffic through the city.”
The Duke Energy grant would also cover other types of equipment, such as for the water rescue team.
The decision not to open shelters in the county brought mixed reviews but Bryson said they believe it was the right call.
While Hurricane Florence ultimately made a shift south and was downgraded in wind strength before making landfall, Bryson said at the time they made the decision not to open shelters the forecast called for Florence to make landfall around Onslow County as a major hurricane.
As it was, there was still damage to schools that would have been open during the hurricane as shelters.
“People will have different opinions but at the end of the day, if we would have opened sites we would have had people where there was major damage,” Bryson said.
Onslow County, he said, doesn’t currently have buildings designed to withstand a Category 4 or 5 storm and as we head into another hurricane season those same school sites they have traditionally used as shelters are still the locations that would likely be used.
When it comes to evacuations, they look at having everyone out of the storm threat before tropical force winds begin in the area.
Bryson said the evacuation within the county went well but they are working to improve the handling of evacuations when county residents are taken to inland shelters in the Raleigh area, as was the case during Florence.
“I think we did a good job with the evacuation in the county but we found some issues with the state and how people were managed when out of the county,” he said.
Bryson said there are still some tasks they are handling as part of the recovery process from Hurricane Florence, but they are prepared for the next storm when it arrives.
Bryson encourage residents to remember there is a hurricane season ahead and don’t think that another major hurricane can’t hit the area again.
“Never say ‘I’ve seen it all’ because we’ve had Florence,” he said. “A high pressure system caused Florence to slow down and downgrade and loop off. If that system had moved 50 miles north, Florence could have come over us as a Category 4. It could have been a lot worse.”
With work of the city and county balanced between ongoing recovery from Hurricane Florence and preparation for another hurricane season, Yaniero said there is one resource that can’t be forgotten: The emergency responders and staff who dedicated their time and talents throughout the hurricane.
When the next storm comes he knows they’ll be there again.
“They have a real dedication to making this community the best they can,” Yaniero said. “No matter what the challenge is they are there to make sure the community has the services they need. I don’t expect anything less than what they did during Florence and that was extraordinary.”
Reporter Jannette Pippin can be reached at 910-382-2557 or Jannette.Pippin@JDNews.com. For digital subscription information, click here.