9 Important Lessons Learned from Hurricane Florence

Posted on September 25, 2019

In September 2018, the powerful Hurricane Florence made landfall in the Carolinas, causing catastrophic damage by dumping more than 30” of rain, sustaining winds of up to 140 mph, and leaving more than $17 billion in damages in its wake. Now recorded as the wettest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Carolinas, and the eighth-wettest overall in the contiguous United States, Hurricane Florence resulted in extensive fresh water flooding and pushed Carolina emergency response teams to their limits.

More Than Expected

The Wilmington Fire Department in Wilmington, North Carolina was one such team that faced the challenges of Hurricane Florence, and Assistant Chief Frank Blackley is now sharing the lessons learned from the days leading up to and following the historic storm. Speaking in a session at ESO’s recent Wave 2018 conference, Blackley set the background of how the city prepared as the storm approached, actions taken during landfall, and coordinated rescue and recovery efforts that took place in the following days and weeks.

“In North Carolina, we considered ourselves to be pretty ‘hurricane savvy,’” explained Blackley, noting that area had weathered two hurricanes in’96, and one each in ’98, ’99, ’22, and ’16. However, several factors worked together to make Hurricane Florence unique and particularly devastating, including extremely high winds (more than 90 mph at landfall), and already saturated landscape, and between 30-50” of rain dumped during the three-day event.

The First Challenges Arise

As the storm approached, already hammering the area with rainfall and wind, the first challenges beginning cropping up. Two generators were not working, and the department soon learned that it would need to relocate a neighboring agency to its own Station #9. Fuel was already becoming scarce for generators and apparatus, and requests began flooding in for deliveries of supplies to shelters. Finally, hard decisions had to be made about calling in staffing for emergency shifts, especially considering many of the firefighters’ own neighborhoods were being evacuated.

Blackley explained that city-wide planning meetings were quickly organized, with four different fire stations coming together to discuss submitting state resource requests, staffing, shelter inspections, and how the Incident Management Team and Joint Command Center would be formed and function. When the storm made landfall, it caused a structure fire in New Hanover County, took the life of a young mother and child when a tree fell on their home, and added more than 60 other incidents needing response that day.

Difficult Conditions Continue

Two days later, the departments were still dealing with tornadoes, evacuations, fuel shortages, and swift water rescues. When the 9-11 center went down, they had to send a squad to a completely different city to work remotely, answering more than 500 calls during this “down time.” A makeshift landing zone had to be created in a shopping center parking lot to allow rescues helicopters to drop off evacuees. Busy intersections with non-functioning traffic lights had to be re-routed into roundabouts to prevent accidents and traffic problems. For days, the emergency response team had to quickly think on its feet to deal with a long list of problems you never imagine encountering when training for disaster response.

Today, the WFD and the surrounding cities are still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Florence. WFD headquarters and its Station #5 sustained extensive flooding damage, causing mold, as well as a damaged roof. Blackley explained these repairs may take years to complete. Additionally, the jurisdiction is continuing to process through millions of dollars of invoices and expenses, including vehicle damage, street and sidewalk repair, debris removal, and employee storm work bonus pay.

9 Lessons Learned

Blackley said there are several lessons learned that he believes may help other departments facing potentially devastating storms like Hurricane Florence.

  1. Proactively designate your base camp and other emergency response areas. Consider where a rescue helicopter could land, or where support systems can be set up. Many non-profits came into town to support first responders with food and other services; they need a place to set up as well. Make contingency plans for power outages and flooded or damaged emergency response facilities. Also, designate who will provide security for these areas; WFD worked with ICE agents in the case of Hurricane Florence.
  2. Create a plan for fuel. During Hurricane Florence, transportation was extremely difficult, making fuel for generators and apparatus very scarce. WFD was eventually able to commander a school bus to help with its fuel transport, but the supplies were still hard to come by. Consider proactively forming agreements with suppliers, including plans for delivery, before you are in an emergency situation.
  3. Plan for storm debris. Debris can not only block up roads and drainage paths, but can become fire hazards. Make a plan for how it will be removed and who will do it (again, establishing agreements with service providers ahead of time is a good idea). Don’t forget that there will be even more debris after the event, as people begin to clean out their homes and contractors begin repairs. This debris often gets deposited next to fire hydrants, causing additional hazards.
  4. Prepare for Internet outages. This is a very real possibility with weather events, and your team needs to be prepared for how to respond. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, WebEOC went down when the Internet went out and the team had to resort to old-fashioned paper and pencil reporting. This caused some on-the-fly training that can be particularly stressful and challenging.
  5. Increase communications with other agencies. This includes emergency response, law enforcement, government, and civilian. Before an emergency, start laying the groundwork for open communications. Help other agencies understand how each other work. Ensure that all, including your civilian counterparts, understand how to create and use an Instant Action Plan. Be sure your team is familiar with your jurisdiction’s Emergency Ops Plan.
  6. Establish and finalize as many agreements with vendors ahead of time as you can. For example, establish agreements with contractors in areas like roof repairs, building maintenance repairs, and mobile buildings. Oftentimes the contract discussions and approvals take much longer than you expect, and you don’t want to be stuck in red tape when you are in desperate need of a contractor during or after an emergency.
  7. Submit state resource requests as early as possible. The earlier you can submit your requests, the better prepared you will be to meet needs as they arise. Blackley adds that you wait to open any Points of Distribution deliveries (PODs) until you absolutely need them, because once you open them, “they are yours.”
  8. Make a plan for staffing during a serious weather event. Consider that some staff will be evacuating their own homes. Others will need to work longer shifts of be called back unexpectedly. It’s hard to please everyone in these types of situations, but setting expectations ahead of time can alleviate some of the stress.
  9. Be prepared financially for the impact. While agencies like FEMA and insurance companies do reimburse many costs, it takes time and paperwork. It’s good to keep a high general fund balance if possible to help prepare for emergencies.

The WFD learned a great deal during its fight with Hurricane Florence. In learning from some of its successes and areas for improvement, other departments around the nation can be better prepared for extreme weather emergencies, and reduce the impact to the community and department.