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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Can New Hanover County’s shelters handle a bigger storm? Can the state?

During Hurricane Florence, New Hanover County opened five shelters -- but considered them "shelters of last resort." What happens if a stronger storm comes through?

Hurricane Florence convinced some counties to issue mandatory evacuations, and pushed New Hanover County's shelters to their limits. What happens if a bigger storm comes through? (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administartion)
Hurricane Florence convinced some counties to issue mandatory evacuations, and pushed New Hanover County’s shelters to their limits. What happens if a bigger storm comes through? (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administartion)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Hurricane Florence didn’t need to pack record-breaking windspeeds to do damage — or to push the county’s shelter system to the limit. So what happens if the next storm is a, as Florence was at one point, a Category 4 or higher?

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

In the days leading up to Hurricane Florence’s landfall, the storm was a Category 4. While New Hanover County did not issue a mandatory evacuation, it did strongly urge residents to head inland. In conjunction with the state, a shelter was set up in Raleigh.

As the storm got closer, it was downgraded twice, ultimately striking as a Category 1. While Brunswick and Pender counties issued mandatory evacuations based on predicted flooding, New Hanover County issued only a voluntary evacuation.

The county also opened five shelters – but the decision to do so was not easy, and while the county’s emergency management team wanted to give residents who could not – or would not – evacuate inland a place to stay, they considered those shelters to be a “last resort.”

Wind-speed tolerance requirements over time

New Hanover County’s five shelters are all school building, built between 1969 and 1997.

  • Johnson Pre-K Center, 1985
  • Codington Elementary School,1997
  • Eaton Elementary School,1997
  • Trask Middle School, 1976
  • Noble Middle School, 1969

One obvious concern is that older buildings were built at a time when windspeed tolerance requirements were not as strict.

According to the state’s Department of Insurance, windspeed requirements under the 1968 code – which was in effect for a decade until 1978 – proscribes building practices using a 100-mile-per-hour wind-zone as the high-end, with exceptions for 120 mile-per-hour (mph) areas like the Ocean Hazard and Coastal High Hazard areas.

North Carolina's 1996 building code requirements for wind-speed tolerance. (Port City Daily photo | North Carolina Department of Insurance)
North Carolina’s 1996 building code requirements for wind-speed tolerance. (Port City Daily photo | North Carolina Department of Insurance)

From 1978 to 1984, Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender counties were all considered 110-mph zones, with the barrier islands considered 120-mph zones. These tolerances were actually lowered by 1996, to 100-mph for inland areas and 110-mph for barrier islands.

The proposed 2018 code sets higher standards, between 130 mph and 150 mph; these requirements would allow structures to survive all but the most cataclysmic high-end Category 5 storms, at least in terms of wind speed.

New Hanover County’s five shelters are all rated to a minimum of 110-mph, roughly equivalent to a Category 2 storm, according to County Manager Chris Courdriet.

Brunswick County has 17 buildings it has identified as potential shelters, each rated to at least 130-mph, a Category 3 storm, according to County Spokesperson Amanda Hutcheson.

Pender County has two shelters; County Spokesperson Tammy Proctor said she did not know what the buildings were rated, but said that both sustained wind and flooding damage.

Wind’s not the only concern

This SLOSH model, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is used to help determine where emergency shelters should be located. (Port City Daily photo | NOAA)
This SLOSH model, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is used to help determine where emergency shelters should be located. (Port City Daily photo | NOAA)

As residents saw with Florence, wind did some damage, but flooding from rainfall is what destroyed homes and businesses – and triggered evacuations days after the storm hit, like those in Pender County and the Waccamaw River area of Brunswick.

New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet said that wind speed is not the only concern.

“Facilities are rated to windspeed, not category, but that’s only one of two things to consider – we have to think about wind speed, but also facilities that are not in the storm surge area,” Coudriet said, adding that it is storm-surge concerns that drive the county’s emergency management team’s discussions about evacuations.

Coudriet pointed out that the state’s building code does not account for storm surge flooding, so the county has to evaluate that separately based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which uses a modeling system known as SLOSH, an acronym for “sea lake overland surge of hurricanes.”

Coudriet said, “It has been the intent of the county to open shelters in schools and facilities that outside of SLOSH flooding up to a Category 5, including a high-tide surge impact – those facilities that are outside the worst-case scenario for storm surge

Despite reports that there was flooding at the Trask Middle School shelter, Coudriet said “The water that came into the building had nothing to do with the SLOSH modeling, that was wind-driven rain.”

Shelters of “last resort”

New Hanover County’s five emergency shelters all opened ahead of Hurricane Florence. But emergency management officials considered them to be “shelters of last resort.”

[mappress mapid=”1203″]

So, at what point would the county issue a mandatory evacuation?

“At no point had there ever been at any point a mandatory county-wide evacuation in New Hanover County…heretofore, there had never been a county-wide, meaning beach towns, the city, and the county…. it has always been discussed, but it has never been done,” Coudriet said, echoing Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who made the same point shortly after the storm.

Coudriet said the county’s emergency management team debates a full-scale evacuation for every storm.

“We wrestle with that every time and – specifically for Florence – our advice and counsel and encouragement was for those who believed they needed to take shelter, and we tried to articulate who they were,” Coudriet said.

New Hanover County’s first preference was that residents head inland, to the shelter opened by the state in Wake County, and provided bus service there.

According to Keith Acree, spokesman for the state’s Emergency Management Division, these shelters are open to all – not just residents of a specific county — and are operated as part of the Coastal Region Evacuation and Sheltering Plan, a state program that “pairs coastal counties with counties father inland that are designated to receive coastal evacuees in shelters.”

Still, Coudriet said the county acknowledged that not all residents would want to – or be able to – make it inland.

“It was recognized by everyone involved in these decisions, that not everybody who wants to evacuate is going to go inland,” Coudriet said. “It’s one thing for a unit of local government, or this time around in the case of the barrier island, [Governor Roy Cooper] mandating an evacuation order – there’s more in play than just that order for a government body. It is a personal burden to make the decision to pack up everything you have, or just a duffel bag of stuff, and choose to leave – there is emotional distress, there is financial distress.”

RELATED: Stories from the storm: Residents reflect on their choices to stay or leave

Acknowledging that many would stay, even though it was not in the county’s view the safest option, Coudriet said the county wanted to provide a space with security, food and water, and medical services that might not be available to individuals at their residences.

Despite that, Coudriet said the county’s five shelters were not ideal options during Hurricane Florence.

“In this most recent storm, they were shelters, but they were really shelter of last resort,” Coudriet said.

On the horizon: Can the state handle an “exodus?”

In the wake of Hurricane Florence, many residents asked why New Hanover County had not issued mandatory evacuation orders like neighboring Brunswick and Pender counties. Part of the reasoning, according to Saffo, was that the state couldn’t handle the county’s large population.

“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.”

Coudriet made a similar point, saying the county considered a full evacuation but had concerns about where the county’s population would go.

“Understanding that, in our case, sending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people inland,” Coudriet said, adding the county had to ask, “where are they going to go, how are they going to get there? What are the impacts of that?”

If a Category 1 storm, admittedly a disastrously slow-moving one, could push not only the county shelters to their limits, but also make city and county officials question whether the state could handle a full evacuation, what happens if a Category 3 storm strikes? What about a Category 4 or 5?

Asked if the state had plans for the “exodus” of the county’s 220,000 residents, along with those from neighboring coastal counties, Acree said only that the state would consider revising their current evacuation plan.

“There will be discussions about revisions and updates to the CRES plan, based on lessons learned from this unprecedented storm,” Acree said.


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

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