Thursday, July 25, 2024

Brunswick and Pender evacuated, New Hanover and Wilmington didn’t – here’s why

Brunswick and Pender counties issued mandatory evacuations, but New Hanover County and the CIty of Wilmington chose to let residents make up their own minds.

Hurricane Florence hit all of southeastern North Carolina with record rainfall and powerful winds, but not everyone was evacuated. (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)
Hurricane Florence hit all of southeastern North Carolina with record rainfall and powerful winds, but not everyone was evacuated. (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — As Hurricane Florence approached the Cape Fear region, Brunswick and Pender Counties declared states of emergency, issuing mandatory evacuations,including specific warnings for flood-prone areas and mobile homes. New Hanover County also declared a state of emergency but, while officials considered mandatory evacuations, neither the county or Wilmington issued a mandatory evacuation.

Now, after days of flooding, supply-shortages, and power outages, some residents have asked: Why didn’t New Hanover County and Wilmington join their neighbors in evacuating?

An unprecedented option?

According to Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, that would have been an unprecedented move.

“Well, first off all, we’ve never had an evacuation – a mandatory evacuation – in Wilmington, ever. We’ve never had one that I’m aware of,” Saffo said.

According to Saffo, while Wilmington and New Hanover County officials considered mandatory evacuations, two main reasons prompted them to issue on a voluntary evacuation.

“There are two things. The first, is there are 220,000 people in New Hanover County. So my first concern, which I shared with (county and state officials), was 220,000 people all leaving this area at the same time, Saffo said.

“The other thing is, where are they gonna stay and how much fuel did they have — because we had reports that they were running out of fuel along I-40 and other ways out of the city. And we were concerned that there would not be enough places for them to find shelter.”

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White said he supported the decision.

“The city and county discussed this issue together in the days leading up to the storm and, like everything else, were 100-percent unified in our thought process and decision,” White said.

Saffo also said the decision to hold off on a mandatory evacuation was made in concert with Governor Roy Cooper and state officials, as well as some input from federal officials. In particular, the state’s ability to house evacuees from New Hanover County was a concern, Saffo said.

“If we were going to send people inland, where were we going to put them and house them as evacuees, how much was the state going to provide for sheltering — and we were getting, from my perspective, a limited amount of shelter (provided by the state),” Saffo said. “Again, the 220,000 people, in addition to all the people from the surrounding counties, that’s just a heck of an exodus and I just don’t think there were enough resources inside the state, as well as fuel, to be able to handle it.”

Saffo said he was aware that not everyone would agree with the decision.

“The thing is, you’re going to be criticized either way. If we had ordered a mandatory evacuation, we would have been criticized by the people that wanted to stay. We went with a voluntary evacuation, so people are going to criticize that,” Saffo said. “But I think we made the right decision.”

For those who did evacuate

As for those residents who did evacuate, Saffo said getting back is still a work-in-progress.

“I understand that people want to come back to their homes. But if you’re trying to get back here, it’s not going to happen until probably Wednesday,” Saffo said. “And even Wednesday, all the roadways are going to have to be inspected to make sure we’re not going to have washouts or a bridge (that) might collapse — all of those roadways are going to have to be inspected by NCDOT engineers.

There is “good news” on the horizon, despite the challenges, according to Saffo.

“The good news is we’ve got some clear weather, we’ve got some crews out there getting power back. A lot of the gas stations do have fuel, but because they don’t have power, we can’t get the pumps to work, but as we get power we’ll be able to get people fuel, he said.

“We do have some challenges, some logistic challenges, but it’s been a good coordinated effort between federal, state, and local level and we’re doing the best we can,” Saffo concluded.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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