CFS Press

North Carolina's response to Hurricane Floyd 

by Slim Ray

"Nothing since the Civil War has been as destructive," said one state official of Hurricane Floyd. Although Floyd's winds caused little damage, the rain it left behind—over 20 inches in some areas—left North Carolina struggling to deal with a flood of historic, not to say biblical, proportions. Thirty-seven counties on the eastern end of the state between I95 and the coast were inundated. Fifty-one people died, and overall damage exceeded six billion dollars, making it the state's costliest natural disaster ever.

The slowness of the emergency response and the heavy loss of life raised serious questions about the state's preparedness and ability to deal with large-scale disasters. In spite of ample warning of Floyd's approach, most residents inland had virtually no warning of the floods that engulfed them, leaving many to rescue themselves in the middle of the night.

What happened?

It began when Tropical Storm Dennis blew in the first week of September, breaking a summer-long drought. Dennis dropped five to seven inches of rain (up to 13 inches in some areas) in coastal areas of the state, soaking the ground and filling up rivers, streams and reservoirs.

A week later, another hurricane "Floyd" headed up the coast. This storm, which quickly strengthened to Category 4, seemed sure to hit somewhere on the East Coast. The weather service issued a warning on Tuesday, September 14th, warning of flooding potential east of Interstate 95, but the media concentrated on the coast and the dangers of storm surge.

Floyd was turning out to be a very large and powerful storm. The largest coastal evacuations in peacetime history began. Some 2.6 million people evacuated coastal areas, clogging the roads for hundreds of miles inland. Reporters and news crews flocked to the coast.

As the storm approached the weather service continued to issue inland flood warnings for the Carolinas. On Wednesday, September 15th, the Southeast River Forecast Center in Atlanta (SERFC) predicted 6-12 inches of rainfall in Floyd's path and warned that rivers 80 to 100 miles inland were expected to experience record floods. The interaction of the storm with a cold front was expected to increase rainfall. That night their radars showed "very heavy" rain as the storm moved onshore.

Although his office was calling for "extensive inland flooding," Kent Frantz of the SERFC found it hard to get past the focus on the coast. "We tried to tell everyone that the main problem was going to be inland flooding, but no one seemed very interested."

When Floyd came ashore at 2am Thursday, September 16th, it had dropped to a Category 2 storm with 115 mph winds. But it was huge, over 520 miles across when it made landfall. The storm arced northeast through the low country east of I95 and was back out to sea by 11am. By mid-morning the skies began to clear. Coastal damage was minimal.

There was local some flooding, but overall damage was light. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. "All in all, we thought we had escaped," said an Edgecombe County Commissioner. But millions of gallons of water, pulled by the implacable force of gravity, were running down innumerable creeks and off the saturated ground into the rivers.

The weathermen checked their instruments. Ten to twenty inches of rain had fallen on the already soaked coastal areas, with five to fifteen inches inland, considerably more than expected. At 1230 they issued a bulletin predicting "record levels" for coastal rivers, including the Tar, Neuse, and Cape Fear. SERFC predicted crests (which turned out to be very close) and added that the rivers would not crest until Friday in the upper sections, and "late this weekend or early next week" for the lower watersheds. They cautioned against driving on flooded roads.

The first rescues began Thursday afternoon. A Marine helicopter hoisted up a couple of drivers from a flooded 18-wheeler on I95 in Nash County. The state's helicopter resources were pretty much limited to two hoist-equipped National Guard Blackhawks, both of which were down for maintenance.

As darkness fell on Thursday, everything still seemed manageable.

About eleven o'clock the terror began. The water, already high, kept rising and didn't stop. People began getting out as best they could in the darkness. Some evacuation orders were issued, but by now the roads were flooded. The county EOCs, already overburdened, were now overwhelmed by calls. They called for outside help.

The state sent military helicopters. But the helicopters, with military radios, could not talk to civilian agencies, who in many cases had little idea of what was going on outside their immediate areas. Only a few were able to operate at night. The pilots did the best they could, rescuing whoever they found.

They could rescue only a few. Mostly people rescued themselves and their neighbors. One citizen rescue boat overturned and six people, three of them children, drowned. By daylight an estimated 1,500 people were trapped by the still-rising waters. Belatedly the state began mobilizing.

Friday morning everything that could fly was sent to the flood zone. At one point there were sixty helicopters from the active Army, North Carolina and Tennessee National Guard, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard deployed in Pitt and Edgecombe counties. The Coast Guard had to use an airborne controller to direct them all. The governor appealed for private helicopters.

About 420 people were rescued by helicopters and many more evacuated. Rescuers in boats accounted for another thousand or so. Swiftwater rescue teams in the west were finally activated, although it would be Saturday before they would arrive.

Some 4,000 national guardsmen and over 750 other uniformed personnel were sent in, although most had no flood rescue training or life jackets. Two Guardsmen narrowly escaped when their truck washed away, and two state Department of Transporation workers died, one while assisting in a rescue. Over 1,400 roads were flooded, making it difficult to get anyone or anything in except by air.

Citizens continued to die while driving through moving water. When the death toll was tallied this would be the leading cause. There was no public education program telling them not to, nor were roads closed off, even major ones. Carlan Gordon's experience was typical.

Gordon, a student at UNC Wilmington, had gone to Raleigh early Wednesday to stay with her brother. She drove back Friday. No one on radio or TV was saying anything about closed or flooded roads. When she reached Wallace, about forty miles from Wilmington, the road was blocked by water. Gordon pulled up to the Department of Transportation worker who was waving people through.

"Is this safe?" she asked.

"Everyone so far has made it," the man replied.

The water came up to the doors of her Chevy Cavalier, but finally the car reached a high spot. Beyond the water was flowing swiftly, and a rescue was in progress where a minivan had washed off the road (the driver drowned). Eventually Gordon was rescued by the highway patrol, who ran a large dump truck in that night to pick up her and several other stranded motorists.

The rivers continued to rise, as predicted, until early the next week. By late Saturday, September 18th, three days after the storm, everyone had been rescued, even though some towns remained cut off by flood waters. The state began turning its attention to the massive problem of flood relief.

The problems with the Floyd flood response were primarily managerial, coupled with an overall lack of training and pre-planning. They were similar, except on a much larger scale, to those described in Kansas City (OVER THEIR HEADS January-February 1999). Adequate resources were available, but never seemed to get where they were needed in time. The state of North Carolina consistently failed to see the floods as a regional, rather than a local, problem. Consequently there were 37 separate floods with little or no coordination. In addition, as the incident above on I40 shows, there was poor coordination between state agencies. Managers at all levels acted in a reactive, business as usual fashion, with long decision loops delaying necessary actions.

There was no preplanning. Low-lying roads and housing areas had not been surveyed, nor were adequate maps available. Given the accurate predictions of river levels, it should have been a relatively straightforward exercise, using GIS information, to plot flood-prone areas and evacuate people out of them.

Local EOCs, used to dealing serially with small-scale incidents like car wrecks and lost person searches, were unable to handle a large number of simultaneous incidents. Managers had no training in dealing with floods or large-scale incidents, nor were local rescue units trained or equipped for flood rescue.

The state, which could have provided the needed expertise, adopted a passive, hands off attitude, attempting to solve each problem as it came up. When asked to pre-deploy swiftwater rescue teams from the western part of the state, the state EMS coordinator replied that he couldn't do anything until someone asked. Later he would add that he considered it too dangerous to put the teams in the path of the storm.

There was a curious atmosphere of unreality throughout the entire incident. In spite of extensive meteorological warnings, emergency managers at all levels seemed unable to grasp or accept the extent of the disaster. Every new area flooded seemed to come as a surprise. In strong contrast to the massive evacuations on the coast, there were virtually none inland. The first warning most residents had was when water started coming into their houses.

It is difficult to explain or justify official inaction on Thursday. The river flood warnings went out at 12:30, giving over eight hours of daylight to evacuate neighborhoods or bring in help while roads were still open. When serious flooding did begin around 11pm that night, darkness vastly complicated rescue efforts. When officials tried to send in help the next day, all access roads were flooded and would remain so for days.

One of the consistent lessons of flood rescue is that rescue resources have to go in early if they are to get in at all—if possible before flooding closes off access to the affected area. Advances in weather prediction now make it possible to deploy before the flood—but only if these warnings are heeded.

Overall, it was North Carolina's good fortune to have a large number of military bases. Military assistance, mostly in the form of helicopters, made the critical difference in holding down fatalities. However, a more proactive flood rescue policy would have been more effective. Emergency officials all up and down the East Coast need to realize that the main danger from hurricanes is inland flooding, not storm surge, and plan accordingly.

Many of these same problems came up two years before after Hurricane Fran, but the lessons went unlearned. One can only hope that this time, disaster acts as a stimulus for change.

This article originally appeared in 911 Magazin

Hurricane Floyd's Wrath

  • 51 storm-related deaths in North Carolina, 90 on the East Coast, making this the deadliest storm sinceHurricane Agnes in 1972, where 122 died.

  • 30,500 hogs, 2,000 cattle, 250 horses, 2.1 million chickens, and 737,000 turkeys lost in North Carolina.

  • Four hog waste lagoons burst and 47 overflowed; 24 water treatment plants flooded.

  • Over 7,000 homes were destroyed; 17,000 rendered uninhabitable, and at least 10,000 people were displaced in NC alone. Almost 70,000 people in the state applied for emergency assistance.

  • Overall damage in NC exceeded six billion dollars, making it NC's most costly natural disaster ever, exceeding Hurricane Fran in 1997. New Jersey also listed Floyd as its worst natural disaster.

  • Thirty-seven counties in eastern NC with a combined area of 18,000 square miles (an area twice the size of Vermont) flooded.

  • Ten states were declared disaster areas.
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