As Atlantic Hurricanes Become More Dangerous, can North Carolina Evacuate its Most Populous Coastal County?

With the peak months for hurricane activity upon us (August through October), government forecasters in charge of predicting hurricane activity have elevated the chances of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season to 45% (up from 30% from the outlook issued in May). This means we may see 10-17 named storms, 5-9 hurricanes and 2-4 major hurricanes.

With blue tarps still whipping in the breeze on roofs across New Hanover County, this is not good news for those not yet recovered from last year’s record-breaking Hurricane Florence.

On Sept. 10, 2018 as the storm gained strength in the Atlantic with winds of 140 miles per hour, the National Weather Service predicted the storm soon would make landfall near Wilmington in New Hanover County, North Carolina’s most populous coastal county with 232,274 residents. Under a voluntary evacuation order and at the urging of local officials and the governor, thousands fled inland. But many others stayed put to ride out the storm.

Florence eventually made landfall at Wrightsville Beach at 7:15 a.m. on Sept. 14 gusting to 105 mph. When the storm pushed into nearby Wilmington, a massive tree crashed through the roof of the one-story brick home of Lesha and Adam Johnson.  Firefighters from the station less than a mile away struggled for hours during the storm to reach the family inside and were able to save Adam, 48. But Lesha, 41, and their 8-month-old son, also named Adam, died. Lesha owned her own business, was attending college, and had worked at the Wilmington Housing Authority as a director of property management. The family had stocked up as they prepared to ride out the storm. The home wasn’t in a flood zone. Adam, a janitor, said they felt they would be safe, especially since public officials had stressed the primary danger from the hurricane would be storm flooding and had not placed Wilmington under a mandatory evacuation order.

The Johnsons had all the information and made a reasoned decision to remain in their home during the storm.

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who repeatedly urged people to leave, explained that the city had never been under a mandatory evacuation order. Discussions with the county, the governor and federal officials concluded that the rest of the state could not handle a mass exodus from its largest coastal county.

“I just don’t think there were enough resources inside the state, as well as fuel, to be able to handle it,” he told the Port City Daily.

We have to ask, why this was the case when the governor of our neighboring state to the south was able to order the mandatory evacuation of 1 million people living on its coast in one sweep?

“We know the evacuation order I’m issuing will be inconvenient,” S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said. “But we’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.”

Why could North Carolina not make a coordinated mandatory evacuation of its coastal population with the same efficient decisiveness? Gov. Roy Cooper declared a mandatory evacuation of the state’s barrier islands for Florence, but otherwise North Carolina primarily relied on local governments to make evacuation declarations. Is this the best approach? This is a question worth asking.

As our climate changes due to global warming, we are likely to see increasingly intense storms. Warmer oceans mean bigger, wetter and slower hurricanes may become the norm.

On Sept. 16 after two days of relentless wind and rainfall, floodwaters blocked all roads in and cut off New Hanover from the rest of the world. Food, water and fuel became scarce for those who did not evacuate.

The county had lost power. Many structures were damaged from the relentless wind and 27 inches of rain that battered the county. Flood waters rose in roads, homes and businesses. Wilmington’s storied live oaks and long-leaf pines downed power lines and blocked the streets. Shelters were at capacity and short on supplies.

After the storm, the city’s sidewalks told the tale: Water-logged carpet, sheet rock and household goods joined the mountains of stacked tree trunks and limbs on virtually every street. New Hanover County spent the next three months clearing 3 million cubic yards of vegetative debris.

Today, digital billboards across Wilmington implore the local citizenry to be prepared for the next big one. Plan. Be prepared with an emergency readiness kit. Tick all those boxes on the hurricane readiness checklist.

Some 42 people died in North Carolina from Florence.  The state suffered $22 billion in property damage. State and local officials have scratched their collective heads in the months since Florence and vowed they will do better next time to protect life and property. Securing homes and businesses to better withstand the next storm and upgrading roads to resist rising waters must take place. While the damage from Florence in New Hanover was significant had the hurricane come ashore at 140 mph, many more lives would have been lost and the damage would have been unfathomable.

Already into the 2019 hurricane season, the sense of urgency is clear. While the population is urged to act before the next storm, the wheels of government must move quickly and with courage.

 

 

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