When the devastating floodwaters from Hurricane Florence began to recede last year, emergency managers, disaster researchers and reporters in North Carolina pored over the evidence and asked, “What could be done better?”
They haven’t had long to study the question and respond. Hurricane Dorian is bearing down, expected to bring high winds and more than a foot of rain to parts of coastal North Carolina before the one-year anniversary of Florence’s landfall.
Forecasters are predicting Dorian to be a slow-moving storm with a path similar to 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, which ravaged many of the same areas inundated by Hurricane Florence.
The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer evaluated lessons learned from Florence in a recent four-part series, “The Storm’s Path.”
Reporters found that shelters were overwhelmed by the number of evacuees seeking help and the duration of the flooding that kept them away from their homes.
Shelters were beset by problem after problem, sometimes resulting in evacuations. There were bed bugs, fleas, norovirus, mold. Some shelters were unprepared to meet evacuees’ medical needs. Many counties reported shortages of volunteers and workers.
In response, local and state officials have begun rethinking their shelter plans. Some counties started scouting for new shelter locations and installing generators while state officials laid plans for inland mega-shelters.
Testing for a new evacuation system, relying on zones, also begins this hurricane season in Camden, Craven and Pasquotank counties.
To identify ways to minimize the human toll of tropical storms, reporters carefully death records and other public documents and interviewed dozens of people who lost their loved ones due to the storm.
The newspapers identified four deaths that appear to fit federal guidelines for a disaster-related death, but were not included in North Carolina’s official count. Officials in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia included 59 fatalities in their tally as of August.
At least 14 people drowned in their cars during the storm or in the flooding that followed. The share that died this way was lower than in Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and in Matthew in 2016, but driving in hazardous conditions is still all too common, experts say.
At least 11 deaths related to Florence were due to blunt-force trauma in a motor-vehicle crash. Many of those vehicles hydroplaned on wet roads.
Drivers sometimes go around barriers, endangering themselves and potentially the occupants of vehicles that might follow them.
In one high-profile case during Florence, a 1-year-old boy drowned after his mother tried to drive across a flooded bridge. There were barricades in the area, the mother told The Washington Post, but she continued driving after she saw other drivers doing so. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor death by motor vehicle, The Charlotte Observer reported.
Lawmakers have since passed a new law that makes it illegal to drive around a “road closed” sign or barricade on a flooded or damaged highway. The law takes effect in December, The News & Observer reported.
The newspapers’ analysis found that only a small share of deaths, 20%, took place in a designated 100-year flood plain. Experts say flood plains should be regularly re-evaluated and not considered static.
In Raleigh, officials were inspired by Hurricane Florence to install “high water” signs linked to sensors and real-time cameras to monitor low-lying areas. The city has also hired a contractor to develop a computer model to predict future flooding based on the forecast, The News & Observer reported.
Medical examiners attributed six deaths from Florence to carbon monoxide poisoning, a gas emitted by gas-powered generators. Experts advise people who plan to use a generator to carefully review the manual and to invest in a carbon monoxide detector.