PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Hurricane Florence may have made landfall more than 10 months ago, but Pender County Emergency Management Director Tom Collins doesn’t have to go far to see the storms effects.
In one corner of his office, a stack of paperwork nearly seven feet high sits as a daily reminder of how much work the storm has put the county through.
This week, the county released its Hurricane Florence After Action Report, detailing the response to the storm, and what areas the county will attempt to improve before another event.
“Hurricane Florence is our new benchmark in first response,” Pender County manager Randell Woodruff said in a release. “The After Action Report details the steps we need to take as a county to improve as the nature of our storms change.”
Areas of Pender County saw some of the worst flooding from Florence, as the storm stalled over the area dropped nearly three feet of rain in as many days.
Unlike other reports, Collins said he and the county wanted to focus on specific pressure points tht came up during the storm.
One of the most critical items addressed in the report, Collins said, is the county’s ability to safely shelter residents if the need arises.
During Florence, Burgaw Middle School had to be evacuated due to a sewer malfunction, so Collins said it has been removed as one of the primary shelter locations.
However, the county will have access to all Pender County Schools as shelters should they need them, and a high school was added to replace Burgaw Middle.
Collins said over the last few months he and his staff have visited all of the schools to get a better idea of their capacity and structural integrity.
Additionally, Collins said they are looking at the “shelter in place,” protocol for assisted living and other special-needs facilities. During the storm one senior facility had to be evacuated due to flooding, and Collins said the county doesn’t want that situation to present itself again.
One of the most costly issues Pender County faced with Florence was debris pickup of both the vegetative and construction variety.
Piles of debris lined highways throughout the county for months, leading to significant backlash from county residents. The piles were even noticed by Governor Roy Cooper.
Much of the major issues came from illegal dumping, Collins said, but the clean up process also took much longer — and cost significantly more — than anyone anticipated.
"it was a very expensive venture for the county,” he said, costing somewhere around $14 million.
To combat the illegal dumping, Collins said they will be focusing on education as much as on enforcement.
"[We’re] looking at a whole different way of how we announce, how we put information out of when information is going to be collected, so there’s a schedule,” he said.
For all of those issues, Collins said better communication before, during and after the storm will go a long way toward better outcomes.
One way the county is considering improving access to information is through an AM radio station.
“We feel that that would be a very good shot in the arm to our communication,” he said.
The county is in the process of applying for a hazard mitigation grant to pay for the estimated $250,000 project.
Collins said he is also hoping to engage community leaders in the federal Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program to provide a more streamlined communication channel between officials and the neighborhoods that are likely to be isolated due to flooding.
CERT members would be trained by the county, and in addition to having basic first aid skills and other training, would serve as points of contact for the county in those areas.
Finally, the county is also looking at better using social media as well.
According to the report, the county is specifically considering turning off comments on Facebook posts, though Collins said he and the county attorney are in talks with the UNC School of Government on the logistics to ensure the county abides by state public records laws.
Collins said the report should be considered a “living document,” and it will be updated over time as more information becomes available.
In the meantime, he said they’ve already started working on implementing what they can, especially as the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane Season deepens.
“We’ve started working on many of the areas identified in the report,” said Collins.
The report will be formally presented to the Pender County Board of Commissioners at a future meeting.