More from the series
The Storm’s Path
The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer go deep into one of the deadliest hurricanes and the all-time costliest storm to strike North Carolina. Our investigation retraces Hurricane Florence’s destructive steps to ask: Are we ready for the next one?
The widespread, enduring flooding from Hurricane Florence last year exposed critical shortcomings in emergency preparedness across North Carolina, according to an analysis of post-storm reports by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer.
In at least one county, emergency calls couldn’t get through to 911 workers. In another, first responder radio calls weren’t working.
Thousands of people encountered emergency shelters troubled by personnel shortages, bed bugs and mold, or were forced out of public shelters after buildings suffered structural damage or mechanical failures.
Since Florence, emergency managers in North Carolina and elsewhere have been furiously revising disaster plans, adjusting to what weather experts predict is likely the new normal:
Slow-crawling, ultra-soaking hurricanes like Florence, which dropped record rainfall last September and became the costliest disaster on record for North Carolina.
“It overtaxed all of our resources. It was a nonstop fight for days... . Catastrophic-type events, they’re very hard to plan for,” said Tom Collins, director of emergency management in Pender County.
Historically, North Carolina has had one less tool than its neighbors to help evacuate people in the path of a major storm. But now that’s changing.
For the first time this hurricane season, the state will test using evacuation zones, aimed at telling residents who are in the greatest danger to evacuate ahead of a major hurricane. North Carolina is the last coastal state in the South Atlantic region — including Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia — to establish hurricane evacuation zones.
It’s just one of several key changes underway as Hurricane Florence recovery continues in North Carolina.
The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reviewed official “after-action” reports from some of the hardest-hit areas of North Carolina and asked both state and local officials about changes they’ve made since Florence. In coastal and inland communities alike, leaders are rethinking their communications equipment and how they cope when cell towers and electricity go out. In many places, officials are rewriting plans for sheltering evacuees.
Several agencies provided detailed internal review documents for this analysis. In some devastated counties, such as Robeson, an after-action report was not yet available.
Others, like Duplin County, which saw more deaths than any other county, did not respond to multiple calls and emails from N&O and Observer reporters asking for information.
Here’s a look around the state at what’s changing.
‘Know Your Zone’
Evacuation zone testing in North Carolina is in effect for the 2019 hurricane season in Camden, Craven and Pasquotank counties.
Zone systems work by assigning each address to a zone — for example, Zone A or Zone 1 — which can then be used to notify residents of imminent danger via public broadcasts or news reports.
State officials say over the next year they’ll notify residents in North Carolina’s entire coastal region of their assigned zone in a “Know Your Zone” public campaign. The plan is for a full implementation of the zone system by hurricane season 2020.
The effort could ultimately save lives and reduce confusion about whether individuals and families should evacuate, says Keith Acree, communications officer for the state Division of Emergency Management.
During Florence, hundreds of thousands of homes were under mandatory or voluntary evacuation orders by state and local officials. Six coastal counties mandated all residents to evacuate. But at least twice that many called for voluntary evacuations, giving evacuation instructions like “all unincorporated areas” or “all low-laying areas.”
Further inland, several counties warned of life-threatening flood conditions telling residents to evacuate based on proximity to rivers or other landmarks.
One county, for example, posted on its official government Facebook page during Florence a list of more than 75 specific residential streets that should evacuate. The post said others should use caution if they lived near a local river that was predicted to set a flood record during Florence. Later — responding to dozens of questions and confusion from residents — the county again addressed evacuations on Facebook, warning that any area that flooded in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew was likely to flood again in Florence.
In small communities where people have lived most of their life, that evacuation method can work well. But for others — especially those in large metro areas — a pre-designated zone with clear instructions on when to leave is often better, says Steve Davis, owner of All Hands, an emergency management consultant company.
Big cities, Davis said, typically have transient populations and residents who “have no idea whether they’re in the hazard zone or not.”
North Carolina is one of the last hurricane-prone states on the East Coast not to use evacuation zones. South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Florida all conduct evacuations based on zones. Most Gulf Coast states and Mid-Atlantic states like Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware do, too.
Virginia, for example, started its zoned emergency evacuation program in 2017. Officials there say the evacuation zones help take the guesswork out of residents’ decisions when facing a serious storm: Those who live in non-evacuation zones are more likely to safely shelter in place at home, taking unnecessary traffic off the roads and reducing car wrecks. And those who are in evacuation zones are more likely to get themselves out of danger earlier.
Emergency radios failed
Off the coast, inland communities face severe flooding both before and after a hurricane hits.
Last year in Fayetteville, for example, a worst-case-scenario flood that weather patterns suggest should happen only once every 500 years or so unfolded for the second time in as many years. Some parts of Cumberland County saw floodwaters mount almost 10 feet higher than ever documented.
Floods left Interstate 95 through Cumberland too dangerous to drive, and motorists were suddenly forced to leave the highway with little idea where to go.
And at first, there was no shelter.
So community leaders and emergency personnel quickly cobbled two together — one less than a mile off the interstate at the Godwin-Falcon Volunteer Fire Department; another down the road at the North Carolina headquarters of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
But then, as the rivers rose, local officials faced another big problem: First responders’ radio communications system went dark.
“Those towers were going down — more so than did during Matthew,” said Gene Booth, Cumberland County emergency manager.
Two counties over, in Scotland County, calls to 911 couldn’t get a response during part of the storm.
The county’s 911 director, Mike Edge, said the call center was overwhelmed with incoming traffic, fielding more than six times the number of calls than a typical day. In a two-day period, there were nearly 250 water rescues in Scotland County — compared to fewer than five over the past three decades.
The night of Sept. 16, Edge said, the county had to stop responding to 911 calls due to dangerously high winds.
“I’ve been around 32 years, and I have never seen anything as bad as what that was,” he said.
In Cumberland County, the 911 system was operable, but radio-to-radio communication between police, fire departments, emergency management officials and others was temporarily down during the storm, Booth said. Agencies resorted to cell phone calls, texts and emails to relay critical communications like calling for water rescue boats or refilling shelter supplies.
For the next big storm, Booth decided he needed a better backup plan.
“Every disaster gives us opportunity to improve,” he said.
Now, the county has a web-based “situational awareness” app, Booth said, that should help first responders, municipal leaders and shelter managers stay in touch if radios fail.
Statewide, the Highway Patrol, which administers the VIPER emergency radio network, says only one of its communication towers went down for a significant amount of time during Florence. The state is replacing that infrastructure and building a higher platform to mitigate potential flooding in the future. Highway Patrol officials said much of the hardware associated with the VIPER radio network also will be updated to further improve emergency communications during major storms.
Fleas, mold in shelters
North Carolina’s sheltering system was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who needed help during Hurricane Florence.
More than 21,000 people were staying in shelters the morning the storm moved ashore. That’s five times the number who relied on shelters during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
To county emergency managers, it seemed the shelters were beset by one problem after another: staff and volunteer shortages, a lack of supplies, structural damage, sewage backups, bed bugs, fleas, norovirus, mold.
Several shelters had to be evacuated.
Animals arrived with evacuees and needed to be accommodated. And it wasn’t just cats and dogs in the shelters. There were rabbits, a chinchilla, goats.
At least one county had to devise a plan on the fly for housing sex offenders separately. There aren’t uniform rules for collecting information about evacuees or tracking them.
“Every conceivable thing you could think of happened,” said Collins, the emergency manager in Pender County.
Now, emergency managers across North Carolina are doing more rigorous planning and inspecting shelters before storms, work that continues even two months past the official start of hurricane season.
Pender County officials inspected their shelters in late June. They tried to imagine contingencies and ways to make the shelters a little more comfortable: Where will people eat if the cafeteria windows blow out? How could people access their pets? Could movies be screened in the auditorium?
Brunswick County officials have been scouting for new locations. Historically, most shelters have been in schools. But when extensive flooding leads to longer shelter stays, classes may be interrupted. Officials are trying to find other locations so students can return to school more quickly. Senior centers are being considered as a replacement.
State officials are rewriting the plan for mutual aid between counties. This year, more mountain counties will provide mutual aid, and facility agreements are in the works for mega-shelters, some of which will be housed on college campuses.
State officials say they are also working to avoid some of the problems identified by Disability Rights NC at state-run shelters during Florence, including a bathroom situation at a coliseum in Winston-Salem that forced disabled evacuees to wear diapers. The group also recommended more mental health professionals in shelters, quiet rooms and transportation to medical appointments.
Another big change involves the American Red Cross.
In a debriefing session following the storm, elected officials in Brunswick County worried that people wouldn’t use shelters during the next storm because the conditions were so bad during Florence. The county’s after-action report used all caps to describe the sentiment: “WE DO NOT WANT RED CROSS BACK INTO BRUNSWICK.”
Officials said that Red Cross volunteers treated evacuees with disrespect and that they moved people with special medical needs from a New Hanover County school into an industrial building in Brunswick County that was not properly zoned or inspected.
The Red Cross declined to make anyone available for an interview for this article, and did not directly address specific allegations in a written statement. “As a learning organization, we are committed to working with partners to continually improve our services and, in particular, access to these services,” the statement said, in part.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How we did this story
The Storm’s Path includes an in-depth look at the people who died at the hands of Hurricane Florence. To tell these stories, reporters collected official government records (like police reports and autopsies), interviewed family and friends of victims , spoke with first responders and coroners, and reviewed news articles, obituaries and social media accounts.
To analyze emergency preparedness in North Carolina communities, news reporters toured storm shelters and obtained post-Florence evaluations of public safety efforts. Information came from interviews with emergency management officials and civic leaders and experts who help governments prepare for natural disasters.
Florence storm name retired
The Atlantic hurricane season started on June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. In the Carolinas, the worst tropical storms and flooding are typically seen between mid-August and October.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, announced in early August that conditions are favorable for “above normal” hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean this year.
NOAA updated its pre-season forecast after finding that El Niño had ended. El Niño is a climatic pattern associated with warm surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean that typically suppresses hurricane formation in the Atlantic.
Forecasters now expect 10 to 17 named storms, five to nine hurricanes and two to four major hurricanes. Historical data show an average of six Atlantic hurricanes a year.
NOAA has released its list of names for this year’s storms and has officially retired the names Florence and Matthew, due to the widespread destruction and death those hurricanes brought.