WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - As Hurricane Florence was blowing ashore in Wrightsville Beach, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo was making the rounds through the city that he heads up, assessing the first damage brought on by the storm.
That trip eventually led to the Hotel Ballast in Downtown Wilmington, which is where photographer Mike Pelzer and I were holed up. The power was out, it was hot, we were wet and tired, and we weren’t alone. The Hotel Ballast was home to scores of national and international media as well as our small representation from WECT.
Being local had its privileges.
Not long after yet another live report with rain pelting me as it blew horizontally across the early darkness, Mike and I needed a break. Sitting in the silent lobby it was hard not to notice the front doors blowing open for one man.
He came towards us without a single person stopping him (like I said, being local was a bonus) and asked how WE were holding up. I was floored that he was out in the weather, and out alone. A year later I’m still unsure what it was about that moment but when I saw Mayor Saffo, there was a part of me that knew things were going to be alright. It’s become one of the moments from Florence that I hold close to me.
Within hours of the storms arrival it was clear that Florence would be unlike anything Wilmington had experienced before.
“It looked like a bomb had gone off," Mayor Saffo recalled. “It was something that I’ve never seen here before and I’ve lived here all my life. And I’ve gone through a lot of different hurricanes over that time, but this was something that was mind-boggling.”
Reflecting on how the Wilmington was impacted by Hurricane Florence, Saffo believes we’re ready if another were to come our way.
“We’re as ready as we can be," he said. “We need to do a much better job in the resiliency and building up for the next storm.”
Saffo is quick to point out where the shortcomings were.
During Hurricane Florence the Emergency Operations Center was compromised leaving the team “as blind as can be,” according to the mayor. 911 calls were re-routed to Raleigh while communications in Wilmington were being re-established. It was a test that Saffo knows Wilmington was quick to pass, but the margin to fail is much too big moving forward.
“When that emergency operations center went down, we were able to re-deploy, move out of that room, into another area of the county administration building, set up shop in probably 15 minutes,” Saffo explained. “If we have to have personnel here or if you have to have sheltering for people we have a safe place to put them if we know we have a category 4 coming. So, we’re really going to have to assess that emergency operations center complex between the City and the county and make sure it’s state of the art and safe for our people.”
The safety of the general population was also a major concern during and in the days following Florence. Homes across the city were destroyed either by Florence or tornadoes that were spawned during the storm. Power was luxury, gas even more difficult to come by, and if you didn’t prepare for the storm forget finding food as grocery stores and restaurants were closed for business. Many people felt lost and were looking for answers.
“I was getting a lot of information from the Emergency Operations Center that was telling us we were in critical need of fuel, water, medical supplies," Saffo added. “I was obviously on the phone to the Governor, with United States Senators, with the President of the United States to make them aware of what was happening on the ground and to tell them what our needs were. I know the State was in the process of bringing in a ship to the port from Norfolk, Virginia to bring us a litany of supplies that we were asking for.”
The supplies eventually came, and with them the task of first getting aid to those who needed it most.
“A lot of kudos go to the Emergency Operations people, to our first responders. I mean these men and women are true professionals and they did a phenomenal job for our community and I can’t thank them enough as the Mayor of the city," Saffo said.
As Florence made its way out of Southeastern North Carolina it didn’t take long to see and feel the effects. The flooding brought back memories of Floyd in 1999, but Florence was that and then some.
State and Federal highways resembled rivers after flood waters rose to record levels leaving the major ways in and out of Wilmington closed to all traffic. Wilmington was officially alone.
“We have seen in the last 24 months Interstate 40 and Interstate 95 totally flooded, and we’re cut off from the world," Saffo said.
“We’ve got to take into consideration now that from Wilmington, North Carolina to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina there’s 650,000 people and if you throw in Jacksonville and Pender County you’re almost a million people now from 17 East,” Saffo explained. “We’ve got to raise those two roads, it’s something that I’ve been working on with a number of municipalities and elected officials in the region that are asking for this to happen and I believe that we are getting traction at the state and federal level to make that a reality, it’s going to take some time, but it can happen.”
The flooding that came with Hurricane Florence, obviously, wasn’t limited to the roads. With 23 inches of rain falling across Wilmington the water had to go somewhere, and in places it did, just not fast enough. An aging storm water system across Wilmington and New Hanover County was overcome with water and debris leaving many areas with standing water for days.
For Southeastern North Carolina, hurricanes aren’t an “if”, they’re a “when” which is why Saffo believes it’s imperative that the local storm water system be overhauled.
“Looking at areas that have flooded in the past, I know the city of Wilmington has a storm water plan and it has done well in those areas where we’ve made significant investments but we still have areas that are flooding and continue to flood and we’re trying to accelerate those flood improvements as quickly as we possibly can," Saffo said.
The improvements could possibly come county-wide, not just in Wilmington as areas of New Hanover County flooded much worse than Wilmington.
“We came within an eyelash of losing our main water system to the City and two-thirds of the drinking water for this area would have gone away with the wash out on Highway 421," Saffo recalled. "We need to look at possibly working with the county on a county-wide storm water plan because we had a lot of areas of in the northern end of the county that flooded where our first responders were out there saving people out of their houses, getting them off roofs or getting them out of the house before the flood waters came into those properties, that can’t happen again.”
During our interview I had a chance to remind Mayor Saffo about the day he walked into the Hotel Ballast and what it meant to me. I don’t think he remembered, but he played along. What he was quick to remember was how the city that he grew up in was run over by the storm and how the people that make up our city responded.
“I mean they’re the true heroes,” Saffo said during a recent interview. “They came together and took care of each other and you know people have always said Wilmington is a special place but it’s special because of the people that are here and the resiliency in those people.”