Fire chief preps town leaders for hurricanes

by Cole Dittmer
Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Lumina News file photo

Warning flags fly in front of town hall in Wrightsville Beach as Hurricane Irene passes offshore on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2012.


Wrightsville Beach Fire Chief Frank Smith’s message to the town of Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen was that there is never such a thing as just a Category 1 hurricane when planning and preparing for a storm. At the hurricane preparation workshop held before the board’s special Galleria Shopping Center de-annexation meeting on Thursday, June 27, Smith said Category 1 hurricanes like Sandy and Isaac changed the way emergency management agencies prepare. 

“We plan for those worst case events and there are only a small portion of coastal communities that ever see those but if we have something less than the worst case we can implement the parts of the plan that are necessary,” Smith said. “Last year was a year when two big storm surge events were both related to ‘only Category 1 hurricanes’ with Sandy and Isaac.” 

Storm surge, or inundation as the National Weather Service is now calling it, is the biggest issue low-lying coastal areas like Wrightsville Beach have to worry about, Smith said. The severity of the water inundation can depend on a variety of factors like the storm’s size, intensity, angle of approach and the shape of the coast, which can vary for each situation and why storm surge was removed from the Saffir-Simpson scale, Smith said. The Saffir-Simpson scale lists the typical damage for each category storm. 

Moving forward, Smith said the NWS and National Hurricane Center would be focusing more on highlighting the specific hazards of each storm like wind, inundation, freshwater flooding and tornadoes so local emergency managers can base plans on the hazards versus planning for a specific storm category. 

“Two days before Sandy made landfall, Mayor Bloomberg went into the press conference saying it is only a Category 1 and that is not to fault the mayor, that comes from the breakdowns in the briefings coming to him that did not properly highlight the storm surge effects,” Smith said. “That is why the communication of the hazards is so important.” 

As for forecasting, Smith said the NHC’s past forecast uncertainty is shrinking. It has reduced the forecast error by two thirds in the past five years. However, he also said storm intensity forecasting is not well understood and not nearly as accurate as track forecasts. 

With the town’s relatively small size Smith said a mandatory evacuation could be completed in about six hours and that any evacuation would have to be completed at least four hours before tropical storm force winds reach the area. The Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen has the power to declare a state of emergency if necessary and if an evacuation is ordered, Smith said the town must plan to be self-sufficient for about 72 hours, which is the normal amount of time it takes for federal aid to arrive. When that federal aid does arrive, Smith said the local command infrastructure still remains in control. 

Smith urged residents to visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website to build an emergency kit and to treat any storm as if it were one category stronger than forecast. 


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