Donna Lockhart feared that her father’s tall, heavy oxygen tank would explode if she dropped it while she single-handedly loaded it, along with an oxygen machine, into their car to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Florence.
They weren’t supposed to be driving on the morning that they left, Lockhart said. She recalled seeing a twister as her daughter drove them to Carteret Health Care Medical Center. They needed oxygen: Their medical supplier, Carolina Home Medical, had given them a 36-hour supply before the storm hit, and only enough for 12 hours remained.
“It was a scary situation, but I knew what I had to do,” Lockhart said. “I had to get him somewhere where he had his oxygen. Right now, he’s my main priority.”
Lockhart’s father, Donald Lockhart, is 88 years old and has COPD, congestive heart failure, emphysema, and a pacemaker. He has been on oxygen for four years, and Lockhart has taken care of him for two. When his health started to decline, she moved into his home on Pearl Street, just outside of Beaufort.
Even though there was a mandatory evacuation, and family members urged her to go, Lockhart didn’t leave. She didn’t know where to go, she said.
A Proactive Plan
After Florence hit the Carolina coast last year, the Town of Beaufort brought in new Fire Chief Tony Ray to develop a hurricane operations plan that had been in the works since 2017.
“A lot of systems failed,” Ray told the Beaufort Board of Commissioners as he presented an overview of the plan during a work session in June. “We’re trying to do our best to stand Beaufort up, and the community that surrounds us.”
During Hurricane Florence, the town lost communication with county Emergency Operations Services which is maintained by an internet connection. In response, the town switched to a fiber optic internet connection, which isn’t affected by power outages. The town has also applied for grants for satellite phones, so when cell phone towers don’t work, communication with the county and state is still possible.
“We’re trying to increase, or get redundant, with our ability to communicate,” Ray said.
Ray is also preparing emergency services for a worst case scenario – a storm so intense that emergency personnel have to evacuate the town. To ensure the safety of first responders and keep staff as close to town as possible, Ray established a mutual aid agreement with Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. This allows staff to hunker down on base, and return to Beaufort as soon as it’s safe to do so.
The plan itself includes preparedness guidelines for the town, like stockpiling water, MRE, tarps and other resources; adding ice machines to self-sustaining town facilities; identifying medically fragile members of the community; and preparing staff to be self-sustaining while working through the storm.
While a storm is occuring, the plan calls for the town to follow a chain of command, have regular briefings with the Board of Commissioners, and scheduling off-time for staff to rest and recover. During Florence, some staff were on duty nonstop for up to a week.
Ray is finalizing the Hurricane Operations Plan to be presented to the Board of Commissioners for approval in August.
Turtle of a Storm
Mike Dunn, who has lived in Beaufort since 2015 with his wife Nikki, said he wished he had a five-day ice cooler during the storm, though they had many other emergency supplies like a generator and go bags. They evacuated their single-story house on Broad Street and stayed in a friend’s two-story house elsewhere in Beaufort.
“We were as prepared as I think you can possibly be,” Dunn said.
Dunn has lived through natural disasters all over the country. In Colorado, he experienced grapefruit-sized hail during the 1979 storm in Fort Collins and 24 inches of snow during the Christmas Eve blizzard of 1982. He lived through the 7.1 Richter scale Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, California in 1989 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
He said that Hurricane Florence was the worst natural disaster he’d been through. Unlike an earthquake, which is unpredictable and short, he could see the hurricane coming. It was “like being stalked by a turtle,” he said.
Dunn brought up a larger question about the role of government during a time of natural crisis. He wondered what citizens can expect from the local government, and whether the government thinks it should help or thinks it should just stand by.
“So my advice to anybody living in Carteret County that decides to ride out a hurricane,” Dunn said, “You have to assume that you are absolutely, one hundred percent on your own, and to not expect any response from the county government. And I think maybe that’s by design.”
Beaufort was under a mandatory evacuation during Hurricane Florence. Once evacuation orders become “mandatory,” Ray said emergency services go into a “no response” mode. “No response” is standard operating procedure nationwide for mandatory evacuation orders to avoid risking the lives of first responders.
Dunn said the people who helped out most during the hurricane were neighbors, churches, and local non-governmental organizations.
People Helping People
For all the other storms Barbie Lawrence has experienced while living in the area since 1983, she was in a house. During Hurricane Florence, she was in a trailer at River Road Circle in Bettie with five other people and her nine-month-old grandson, where she moved after her husband died.
Lawrence said she didn’t evacuate partly because of stubbornness, partly because she didn’t think the storm would be as bad as it was, and also because she had a lot of sentimental items from her mother that she couldn’t pack up. She felt that the county was really good in trying to prepare people for what was coming, but it was people in surrounding communities who got together, because everyone had experienced so much damage in the storm.
“I believe the people in the small communities stick together,” Lawrence said. “You know, we may not seem like it when a disaster or whatever is not going on, but we do stick together.”
Lawrence told a story about linemen who were fixing the electrical lines after the storm. Some people had brought them plates of chicken dinners, helping the linemen so the linemen could help them in turn. The linemen brought their extra plates of food to the trailers, Lawrence said.
“That is literally the norm for us. That’s nothing new,” said John Wade, a lineman who worked in Beaufort immediately following the storm. Wade was not in the same group that Lawrence saw, but he said he loaded the back of the line trucks with water and ready-made meals to distribute.
Part of being a lineman is not evacuating, said Wade, who has been a lineman for 20 years. He sent his family to Georgia for the hurricane, but he said the thought of evacuating himself never crossed his mind.
Wade said that during every storm he’s worked, people generally help other people. He said that the information that people got, they got from each other. The county was totally unprepared, he said.
One way the county responded was by setting up shelters across the county. Lockhart said the shelters had very good conditions, and they received a lot of donations. Lockhart and her father were at the Newport Middle shelter, where they used their own oxygen machine to fill other people’s tanks.
Ray said he doesn’t know of any other town with a storm preparedness plan similar to the one he developed, though a couple towns talked to him after a county control group meeting he and other municipality officials attended.
He called the plan a “public document” and said he hopes other towns use it. He also said he invited communities in Down East into the emergency plan.
Ray said he hears stories every week of someone who’s finally getting back into their house after the storm, but his emergency plan, a large binder full of detailed planning trying to help the plan return to normal operations, is only a guidance for recovery.
“That plan is a living document,” Ray said. “We’ll always have new lessons learned. There’s always something we’ll be able to keep updating. And the only way we do that, it’s bad to say, but we go through these bad events like we had.”