Top 10: Dorian a near miss at Hurricane Florence anniversary

Published 4:22 pm Friday, December 27, 2019

As the anniversary of Hurricane Florence approached, so did another storm: Hurricane Dorian. Florence recovery and Dorian’s near miss is the No. 3 top story of 2019.

As a severely downgraded Hurricane Florence approached in mid-September of 2018, eastern North Carolina had no idea what was in store. By Sept. 13 of that year, Beaufort County residents were getting an idea. The category 1 storm camped out over eastern North Carolina for three days, and when it gradually moved on, more than 500 homes and 31 businesses in Beaufort County were estimated to have been impacted by the storm; 12,000 people were without power countywide, and 260 people had to be rescued from their homes by boat in Washington alone.

A year later, the owners of some flooded homes were still displaced, and in that year, emergency response had time to reflect on the need for proactive measures and work toward putting them in place.

“What was learned? My mind naturally thinks of both good and bad: good lessons and bad lessons,” Chris Newkirk, chief of fire/emergency management for Beaufort County Emergency Services, said on Florence’s anniversary. “When Florence happened, both (BCES Director Carnie Hedgepeth) and I were new in our positions — we’d only been here for about a year — and we had made a lot of changes, to EOC (Emergency Operations Center), to departments. Florence was the first test run of those changes. We knew we had made changes, in our minds, but it hadn’t really been tested yet.”

In the year between the two storms, Emergency Services focused not only on response, but on proactive measures.

“With emergency management, you have four phases: you have mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. On the response piece, I would put our responders in our county against anybody in the state,” Newkirk said. “The response piece we are very good at. But if we could master the mitigation piece, we wouldn’t need the response. We do need to have that response piece and have our ability to respond to water incidents, and we’re continuing to do that, but when you think about it, would you rather respond or get ahead of it? Response is chasing the problem.”

Newkirk said the experience of Hurricane Irene in 2011 and the many mitigation projects that storm spawned — raising homes or buying out properties that have been severely flooded multiple times — has paid off, with regard to response.

“This has been a very aggressive county on mitigation. We had a lot of damaged houses from Florence — we did. But how many more would we have had if we hadn’t been working on mitigation for the previous four years?” Newkirk asked.

Getting ahead of response means making decisions earlier, from evacuation orders and opening shelters to requesting outside resources such as water rescue crews, even when it’s still too early to tell where a given hurricane’s path will take it.

“If you wait 48, 72 hours for that forecast you have confidence in, you’re too late to make those decisions you have to make,” Newkirk said. “It’s a challenge.”

On the county administrative side, the year after Florence also brought more effort to be proactive in response to storms that, while not necessarily increasing in intensity, have increased in size and longevity. Beaufort County commissioners invested in generators to keep the water flowing in the county water system on the south side of the river in case of power outages, according to Beaufort County manager Brian Alligood. The Board of Commissioners has also approved multiple grants that put more rescue equipment in the hands of first responders, as well as an unprecedented FEMA application to raise or buy out 87 properties suffering severe, repetitive flooding. On the state level, 47 of those homes were approved for mitigation this fall, and if approved at the federal level, these homes might be raised or bought out within the next three years.

On the anniversary of Hurricane Florence, however, homes throughout Beaufort County and the surrounding area were still awaiting much-needed repairs. Some of them have damages dating back to Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Repairing these homes and getting people back into good living environments has been the mission of several groups, including United Methodist Disaster Response.

“As of right now, we have 67 homes that need work that are either active or pending,” Disaster Response Administrator and Casework Manager Donna Brander said on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Florence. “And that’s if nobody new calls us, and they’re calling us every day.”

Some of the families the group is helping hadn’t returned home at year later. For others, there is no other option but to stay in the storm-damaged homes, waiting for help.

Most considered it sheer luck that Hurricane Dorian — the same category 5 Hurricane Dorian that destroyed several Bahamian islands on its way east — spared eastern North Carolina in terms of flooding and major damage to homes.

“We were really lucky that we weren’t really devastated by Dorian,” Brander said. “We really dodged the bullet there. It’s an absolute blessing that we didn’t get hit, but a lot of our southern teams are over in Ocracoke trying to help there. We just watch the weather and pray.”

During Hurricane Dorian, the 4-to-7 foot storm surge forecasted for Beaufort County was noticeably absent, and at its height, Dorian had sustained winds of 32 mph, with gusts maxing out at 47 mph, recorded at Washington Warren Airfield in Washington, according to Tony Saavedra, the observation program leader for NWS Newport/Morehead City.

“For Beaufort County — yeah, it was some wind, some rain, but it moved out pretty quickly, so that’s a good thing,” Saavedra said.

One place that many county residents have ties to did not fare so well. After the category 1 storm’s eye passed over Ocracoke Island around 7 a.m. on Sept. 6, the wind shifted direction, and the island was inundated with storm surge draining from the rivers and sound west of the island.

“It got a surge on the back side of the hurricane moving out, about 6 feet,” Saavedra said. “I have a contact there, and he said that this is historic as far as he’s concerned. He said he’s never seen anything like it.”

Ocracoke homes and other structures that had never flooded before were overtaken by the swiftly moving floodwaters, as were most vehicles on the island. Ocracoke remained in a state of emergency for four months; Hyde County government only reopened the island to visitors on Dec. 2. Denied FEMA assistance, Ocracoke recovery is ongoing.