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FAQ City: How Does North Carolina Prepare For A Hurricane?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management team members are seen in the previous Emergency Operations Center in 2018.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management team members are seen in the previous Emergency Operations Center in 2018.

This year’s hurricane season has been one of the most active on record. Scientists blew through the planned list of 21 tropical storm names -- from Arthur to Wilfred -- and now they’ve started using the Greek alphabet. How does North Carolina prepare when a storm is heading its way?

There has been a lot of upsetting stuff in the news, like the coronavirus, divisive politics and police brutality. Natural disasters like wildfires also have Larry Miller of Charlotte worried.

“In one of the cities in the Northwest, people were told, ‘Leave now. Grab your cat and go in the next 30 seconds. Go,’” Miller said. “What the heck would I do if someone said that to me? What would I do? Where would I go?”

While fast-spreading wildfires aren’t the threat in North Carolina that they are in the West, hurricanes certainly are a danger. So Miller asked FAQ City: What do state and local officials do to prepare for a storm?

‘The Water Was Going Up So Fast’

“Right now in my office, I’ve got a big television and it’s permanently on The Weather Channel,” said Mike Sprayberry, head of North Carolina Emergency Management. He has been in charge of preparing for and responding to natural disasters in the state since 2013.

But it’s a call he got in 2011 when he had a different role at the department that stays on his mind. During Hurricane Irene, Sprayberry went home to catch a few hours of sleep when his cellphone rang. It was a man in Pamlico County who was supposed to have evacuated but hadn’t.

Mike Sprayberry
Credit North Carolina Department of Public Safety
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North Carolina Department of Public Safety
Mike Sprayberry

“He said that he and his family were going up into the attic because the water was going up so fast and he needed help,” Sprayberry said. “I was trying to get his address and my heart was pounding. And then he hollered that there was a dump truck that had stopped out in front of his house and he and his family were going out and getting in the back of it.”

Sprayberry assumes the guy made it out safely, but he still wonders how he got his cellphone number.

‘A Good Battle Rhythm’

Sprayberry and his team work out of the state emergency operations center in Raleigh. It is usually a busy place during disasters like hurricanes. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic, there are fewer people in the office. During Hurricane Isaias, Sprayberry said a lot of coordination happened virtually.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Operations Center has operated differently during the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Operations Center has operated differently during the coronavirus pandemic.

  “It worked OK,” he said. “But you really have to go the extra mile to make sure that you’re communicating and nobody’s left out of the loop.”

Sprayberry said coordination is paramount during disasters.

“I like to get into a good battle rhythm where everybody understands what their mission is, everybody understands when we report, when the phone calls are," he said. "And having all of that good, solid coordination in place so that when the storm hits, there’s no question about who’s gonna be doing what.”

Every day, Sprayberry receives a weather report from three staff meteorologists that breaks down the different “tropical areas of interest.”

If a storm is expected to hit North Carolina, the team starts making phone calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and to emergency management teams in different counties in the state. The team asks county officials what resources they need to be prepared.

“It could be like, however many National Guard, however many search and rescue teams, however much food and water,” Sprayberry said. The state has two warehouses with 80,730 gallons of water, along with ready-to-eat meals, tarps and generators.

Emergency Management might order people to evacuate.

North Carolina’s governor can also declare a state of emergency. That makes it easier for emergency management to get money and supplies without getting tied up in red tape.

Sprayberry said teams start setting up near where the hurricane is expected to hit.

“We try to position them as close to the forecast track as we can, and then when the hurricane moves through, then we’ll surge into the impacted area to execute search and rescue, to feed people, to take folks to shelters, all that kind of stuff,” he said.

‘If It’s Happened In The Past, It’ll Happen In The Future’

In 1989, Hurricane Hugo slammed into South Carolina.

The storm brought wind gusts of 100 mph to Charlotte. Thousands of trees were uprooted, roofs were torn from homes and schools were closed for up to two weeks.

1989hugo0422.gif
Credit NOAA
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NOAA
Hurricane Hugo making landfall, September 22, 1989.

“There’s a 100% chance that another Hurricane Hugo will hit the Charlotte region,” said Robert Graham with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management. “We know for a fact that if it’s happened in the past, it’ll happen in the future.”

When a hurricane is predicted, Graham and his team start making calls just like the team at the state level. They talk to local leaders like county commissioners and mayors along with 33 counties in the region and the Eastern Band of Cherokee. 

“Each county will check in and they’ll say ‘We’re good’ or ‘We have a problem and we need a resource,’” Graham said. 

The team also talks to North Carolina Emergency Management. Graham said most of the time during hurricanes, Mecklenburg sends resources like firefighters or search and rescue teams to other counties.

“We have the most firefighters, the most police officers, the most ambulances. We have a lot of disaster-type equipment here,” he said.

Like the state of North Carolina, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management has a warehouse with disaster supplies like food and water. And just like the state team, county emergency management employees work long hours. 

“We drink a lot of Red Bull and drink a lot of coffee,” Graham said, adding that he sometimes spends the night on the couch in his office. 

One of the hardest parts of preparing for emergencies is that “you’re always wrong,” Graham said. 

“People will look and they’ll say, ‘They did all of this stuff and it wasn’t that bad.’ Or, ‘It was really bad and what were they doing?’ he said. “You almost never hit the perfect point where you have exactly the amount of resources and the situation was exactly what you thought it was going to be.”

How You Can Prepare For A Hurricane

Sprayberry and Graham said first, make a plan.

Figure out a meeting place in case you and your family are separated and decide what to do with your pets. If you live in a coastal county, enter your address on the state emergency management website and find your evacuation zone.

Second, make an emergency supplies kit. Officials say you should have enough food and water for at least three days.

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Credit North Carolina Department of Public Safety
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North Carolina Department of Public Safety

Third, stay informed. If you live in Mecklenburg County, you can sign up for CharMeck alerts so you get a text message, email or phone call when there’s an emergency that could affect your area. Many other counties have similar systems.

Question asker Larry Miller said he’s still worried about a possible hurricane but he is glad to know there are people in the county and state thinking and planning ahead.

As for what he’ll bring with him in an emergency?

“Well I would certainly try to grab my cat because there’s nothing more important than life,” Miller said.

Do you have more questions about the coronavirus or anything else related to the Charlotte area? Share it with us in the box below. The WFAE newsroom is continuing to report on how the virus is impacting the Charlotte region, and your questions and story ideas keep us going.

Keep up with future FAQ City episodes by subscribing to the podcast on Apple PodcastsNPR One, or Google Play.

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