News Stories

Wilmington District Responds to Hurricane Florence

Published Nov. 13, 2018

Hurricane Florence began forming from a strong tropical wave that emerged off the west coast of Africa on Aug. 30, 2018.  Gaining in strength, it formed into a tropical depression the next day near Cape Verde.  Progressing along a steady west-northwest trajectory, the system acquired tropical storm strength on Sept. 1, and fluctuated in strength for several days over the open ocean.  It eventually became a Category 4 hurricane and was heading straight for southeastern North Carolina with landfall as a Category 2 in Wilmington and the immediate area.

   On Sept. 10, the Wilmington District Crisis Action Team (CAT) activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) as Hurricane Florence tracked closer to the Carolina Coast.  The following day, the CAT evacuated to the North Carolina Air National Guard Base to set up an alternate EOC.  The CAT ramped up quickly to prepare specific tasks to include situational reports, Crisis Management Team briefings, travel orders, funding and other standard procedures during emergency management.  The team conducted Crisis Management Team briefings and accountability as Florence pounded the coast, and coordinated with other local, state and federal agencies.  

   “We plan and train for worst case scenarios,” said Janelle Mavis, Chief of Readiness and Contingency Operations.  “Our support to the North Carolina State Division of Emergency Management and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is flexible and scalable based upon the uniqueness of each event.  We planned to relocate the Emergency Operations Center for this type of event.”

   Hurricane Florence made landfall on Sept. 14.  In Washington, D.C., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters (USACE) leaders received 18 mission assignments of which 15 were active.  The mission assignments included National Activation, Regional Activations, Temporary Emergency Power, Debris, Infrastructure Assessment, Water and Wastewater Assessment, Temporary Roofing, and Dam Safety Technical Assistance.  Approximately 131 people deployed to include Temporary Emergency Power Planning Response Teams (PRT), subject matter experts, and Soldiers from one company of the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power).  USACE headquarters also deployed seven Deployable Tactical Operations System (DTOS) vehicles to assist with communication capabilities.

   Public Law 84-99 authorizes the Chief of Engineers, acting for the Secretary of the Army, to undertake activities including disaster preparedness, advance measures, emergency operations (flood response and post-flood recovery), rehabilitation of flood control works threatened or destroyed by flood, protection or repair of federally authorized shore protective works threatened or damaged by coastal storm, and provisions of emergency water due to drought or a contaminated source. 

   In addition, Public Law 93-288, or Stafford Act, constitutes the statutory authority for most Federal response activities, especially as they pertain to FEMA and its programs. In accordance with this legislation, FEMA may direct USACE to use its available personnel, supplies, facilities, or other resources to provide assistance in the event of a major disaster or emergency declaration. The Department of Defense has designated USACE as the planning and operating agent for Emergency Support Function (ESF) #3, Public Works and Engineering, under FEMA’s National Response Framework (NRF). FEMA’s NRF provides guidance for the Nation’s all-hazards response, identifies key response principles, roles, and structures that organize national response. It describes how communities, states, the Federal Government and private-sector and nongovernmental partners apply these principles for a coordinated, effective national response. 

  In Raleigh, working with North Carolina government and Emergency Management officials, Deputy District Commander Lt. Col. Yanson Cox kept in direct contact with them to give updated statuses of water releases from Wilmington District Dams and other USACE responsibilities. 

  As Hurricane Florence made its way toward coastal North Carolina, weather reports predicted at least 24 inches of rain.  A total of 35 inches of rain fell in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, and Florence became the wettest tropical cyclone recorded in the Carolinas, and also the eighth-wettest overall in the contiguous United States.  Wilmington District water managers were on call to coordinate with teams at the projects.  Their first priority was to make sure that operations weren't going to contribute to any flooding downstream of the projects, since that’s where the worst flooding was being forecast to occur.  They cut back to minimum releases before the storm to minimize any downstream effects, then closely monitored the situation.

  “It's a balancing act determining when we can start to release water following a storm event,” said Water Manager Chief Tony Young.  “Like Hurricane Matthew, because downstream flooding was so severe and so prolonged in the Neuse and Cape Fear River Basins, we had to delay our releases longer than we normally would following a typical storm event.  The longer we have to wait to start making releases from our projects, the greater the risk, that we could get even more rain.  Since the lakes were already half full, even a few more inches of rain could have possibly filled our lakes up completely, taking away all our flood control capability.  Thankfully, we had fairly dry conditions after Hurricane Florence, and we were able to get most of our lakes back near normal before Hurricane Michael came along.” 

   Young reflects back to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston when rainfall was measured in feet instead of inches.  He knew an event like that could be devastating to North Carolina.

   “The track of the Hurricane Florence was going to make all the difference in the world,” he said.  “We asked ourselves if the worst of the rain was going to stay downstream of our projects or make more of an impact in and around Wilmington.  We also thought about if the rain would extend far enough upstream that we could be at risk of overflowing our spillways, something that had not occurred at any of our projects.  Thankfully, the worst of the rain was downstream, and our projects were able to handle all the floodwaters that fell upstream of our lakes.”  

   Keeping the public informed of USACE missions during and after Hurricane Florence with timely and accurate lifesaving information was a high priority. The ESF #15 External Affairs integrates Public Affairs and the Joint Information Center (JIC), Congressional Affairs, Intergovernmental Affairs, Planning and Products and the Private Sector under the coordinating auspices of external affairs.  The JIC ensures the coordinated release of information. The Planning and Products component of external affairs develops all external and internal communications strategies and products for the ESF #15 organization.

   Wilmington District Chief of Public Affairs Lisa Parker deployed with the Crisis Action Team to Charlotte as the External Affairs Action Officer.  Parker has been a member of the ESF #15 credentialed FEMA cadre since its conception in 2009. She worked closely with FEMA representatives, District Commander Robert Clark, Mavis and North Carolina Emergency Management public information officers to provide updated information of Wilmington District missions via social media, news releases and media interviews.

    “For additional public affairs support, we brought on three volunteers from various USACE External Affairs Planning Response Teams which deployed to North Carolina to assist with communications within the impacted areas,” stated Parker.

   By Wednesday, Sept. 19, the weather had cleared.  The CAT team moved the alternate EOC to the Deployable Tactical Operations System (DTOS), providing continuous support to the Wilmington District for Recovery Operations and accountability of District Employees.  Hurricane Florence created catastrophic damage to the coast and limited access back to Wilmington, and the team continued operations until the routes from Charlotte were safe to travel.  Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) teams were beginning to assemble to inspect the conditions of the four Coastal Storm Risk Management projects at Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Ocean Isle Beach.

   “Overall, the beaches performed as designed with minor to moderate sand losses,” said Engineering Branch Chief Greg Williams.  “The current Carolina Beach/Kure Beach Preliminary Inspection Report (PIR) is being amended to include the losses from Hurricane Florence so that those quantities can be added to the current solicitation.  The Project Delivery Team (PDT) is examining post-storm survey results at Wrightsville Beach and Ocean Isle Beach to determine if quantities and costs warrant preparing a PIR for those locations.”

   Debris from thousands of fallen trees, flooding and assorted vegetation overwhelmed numerous areas of the state causing additional flooding and road closures.  Mavis said that the Wilmington District provided technical assistance to FEMA for the debris mission by providing mission analysis and

field assessments that were

reported back to FEMA debris officials.    

  The size and scope of Hurricane Florence prevented normal operations of the Wilmington District from resuming quicker than normal.  What were clear routes back to Wilmington on one day were soon hampered when floodwaters from the upper elevations of North Carolina began reaching the Piedmont and the coastal areas the next day resulting in non-passable routes. Mavis stated that particular scenario was noted in an After Action Review and will be closely looked at if another Florence-type hurricane happens.      

   “We plan to educate our staff and plan for a longer timeframe to return to Wilmington based upon the event scenario,” she said.  “Since we relocated the Emergency Operations Center to Charlotte, the equipment and personnel went with us.  We were able to operate and function as planned, and with telework capability for those not assigned to work in the EOC.”