Local News

Coastal Communities Examine Evacuation Plans In Wake Of Katrina

Posted September 7, 2005 8:11 a.m. EDT

— As critics argue that the lack of evacuation plans may have cost hundreds, if not thousands of people their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many coastal communities in North Carolina are taking a look at their own evacuation plans.

"It is a wakeup call," said New Hanover County Emergency Management Director Warren Lee.

Even though Wilmington sits between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, it is not prone to flooding like New Orleans because it is not below sea level. But Wilmington's mayor, Spence Broadhurst, says it does make him take a second look at the city's evacuation's plans.

The largest city on the North Carolina coast, Wilmington has more than 90,000 people living in its city limits. About 80,000 more residents live in New Hanover County and tourism season adds about 35,000 more people.

Moving all of those people in the face of a hurricane, however, would not be an easy task, city officials say.

"We have good plans in place," Broadhurst says of the emergency management plans on file.

Under the plans, emergency officials would open shelters inland in the event of a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane, and would issue a mandatory evacuation for the entire county, including hospitals. The sick and elderly can register with the county to make arrangements for a way out.

"As far as moving large numbers of people, we have arrangements with our county schools for the use of buses," Lee said.

Interstate 40 would also be switched so that all four lanes would carry westbound traffic. That plan, however, has not been tested and Lee worries that roads leading into the highway could bottleneck.

Officials estimate that the quickest New Hanover County could be evacuated is 11 hours.

"Still, our worst fear is that people will wait until the last minute, not believing that the storm is as bad as we'd been telling them," Lee said.

Even under a mandatory evacuation, county officials say they cannot force residents to leave. They say there simply is not enough manpower to make that happen.

"We do our best to send law enforcement officers around to try and get them to leave," Lee said.

Lee says that the cycles of Category 1 and 2 storms pounding the area have left some people feeling that the hassle of leaving is not worth it.

While North Carolina's cooler waters are not as prone to stronger storms like those in the Gulf, massive storms are not out of the question.

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel barreled ashore as a Category 4 storm. Except for a handful of structures, beach communities were wiped clean.

"We know what happened to the older houses during Hazel," coastal construction and erosion expert Spencer Rogers said.

The UNC Wilmington expert says building codes have improved and that homes are now built higher to avoid crashing waves that rip structures off their foundations. Many more homes would survive a stronger storm like Hazel.

"We cannot weather storms without damage, but we can put them back together and get back to normal faster," Rogers said.

Of course, with a Category 5 storm, he says that may not be the case.