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Hurricane preparedness still a main focus ahead of Florence anniversary

Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 7:33 PM EDT
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BOILING SPRING LAKES, N.C. (WECT) - It was a storm everyone in Boiling Spring Lakes saw coming, but no one could have predicted the outcome.

“There was just nowhere for the water to go,” said Tom Guzulaitis, a member of the city’s Board of Commissioners. “Our dam system, being the age that it was, just succumbed to that water that was trying to go through.”

The backyards of what were once lakefront properties now lead into an open field. Over the last three years, foliage has taken over the land, but those who saw the aftermath of Florence describe the initial scene as a war zone.

“It wasn’t just this area — the entire city had flooding issues throughout,” said Guzulaitis. “It was a very scary time for the city, a dangerous time for our citizens.”

As the community recovers, the goal is to be ready for the next storm — and county commissioner Frank Williams has been working on preparedness ever since Florence.

“It was probably the defining moment of my time as a commissioner,” said Williams. “The lesson we learned from Florence was to have things pre-positioned around the county because if the county is split into islands, you physically can’t get supplies from one point to another.”

Williams is also the president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC). He’s taking the lessons he’s learned in Brunswick County to implement the “100 Counties Prepared” initiative to help commissioners across the state.

“That’s what led to my presidential initiative with the association,” said Williams. “We have the opportunity, for those commissioners who want to learn how to do their job in that situation, then those resources are available to them.”

Williams’s initiative involves a partnership with the UNC School of Government to work on the current curriculum. The school already offers emergency management training, but it’s geared toward staff more than elected officials. Williams also hopes to use commissioners from across the state to share their experiences in disaster preparedness.

“Why not get them on video and create an online library where new commissioners can go log in and watch that?” asked Williams.

Preparedness and safety are two key factors of Boiling Spring Lakes’s recovery plan as the city looks at being sure they’re ready for the next storm.

“The city’s taking steps to keep our ditches clean. More work needs to be done but we have a stormwater master plan that we’re working towards fulfilling and repairs that should be done to keep us safe and sound in the future,” said Guzulaitis.

Right now, Boiling Spring Lakes’s main focus is restoring the dam and making sure its strong enough to withstand a Category 4 hurricane like Florence was before it made landfall. When the dams are replaced, Guzulaitis says they’ll meet the highest standards from NC Dam Safety.

“They should be able to move a significant amount of water much more efficiently than our previous dam system did,” said Guzulaitis.

The city has made progress on its list of technical tasks, like engineering and permitting. City officials are still working on financing the project as a budget, that includes $14 million set aside for Boiling Spring Lakes, makes its way through the state’s conference committee. Guzulaitis says they’re also working with leaders at the federal level to help the project move forward.

“Many things have happened behind the scenes to get us to the point where we can finally bid this project,” said Guzulaitis. “I get the frustration — I share in that. We can just continue to work towards, one brick at a time, to get this dam back up and running.”

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