City's emphasis is on water, not wind
The map on the wall of City Fire Marshal Hal Lowder’s office looks more like a topographic chart of a seaside community than it does the city of Whiteville.
However, the map details flood-prone areas, as well as the flood plains for Soules Swamp, White Marsh and other waterways that perennially plague the city with high water. Hurricane Matthew’s flood zones created temporary islands of residential and business blocks throughout the city. The high water mark extends far past some addresses.
If and when a tropical system aims at Whiteville this year, Lowder said the focus should be on water more than wind. The map has become a guidebook of sorts for city officials working to reduce flooding problems throughout the town.
“Eighty percent of the fatalities in hurricanes occur due to flooding,” Lowder said. “There is real potential for danger and death in any flooding situation.”
Lowder recently attended a regional conference with the National Weather Service and other agencies looking at the 2018 tropical storm season. Lowder said a major shift has taken place in the thinking of most emergency managers.
“They told us not to forget the Saffir-Simpson scale, and not to disregard the wind,” Lowder said, “but we need to place our emphasis on water.”
Flooding was the most destructive part of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Lowder said, as well as most previous storms. Although a tropical storm flooded out a city sewer lift station in a small tropical system several years ago, wind had very little impact on the city or region. Lowder also pointed to the two storm cells that flooded downtown Whiteville and parts of Columbus County in the weeks prior to Matthew.
“Matthew was really a comparatively weak hurricane when it came through,” he said, “but it brought all that rain.”
As part of its prevention efforts, Lowder said the city is working on storm drainage projects as well as hazard mitigation. City crews intensify efforts to clear ditches and drains when a storm warning is issued, and the city has received several grants to help with stormwater drainage studies and rehabilitation. The city has also budgeted additional money for stormwater upgrades in this year’s budget, Lowder said, and is close to seeing the completion of an emergency stormwater asset plan.
“The stormwater plan is going to really help us,” Lowder said. “When it’s finished, it’ll detail our trouble spots, as well as the areas that need maintenance or major upgrade.” The plan will also help the city qualify for additional grant money for further stormwater improvement.
Much of the focus of future improvements will be on Mollie’s Branch and downtown, since most of the city drains toward those areas.
While the new city hall won’t be finished in time for the peak of storm season, the building is designed to be an emergency management command center in case of a storm. For the time being, Lowder said, city officials have generators and emergency equipment at the fire station, police department and interim City Hall to help keep operations moving during even the worst weather.
Citizens have as important a role to play as city crews, Lowder said.
“A big thing is grass clippings and leaves being blown or raked into storm drains,” Lowder said. “Everybody wants a neat yard, but vegetative matter like that needs to be put out where it can be picked up. You can also compost it or haul it away yourself, but it doesn’t need to be in the storm drains. We have several older sections of pipe that regularly clog up because of yard debris.”
The city does not clean private ditches, Lowder said.
“We can’t go on someone’s private property and clean out their privately-owned ditch,” he said. “Darren (Currie, the city manager) has explained this before. If the city doesn’t own it, or have a right of way, the city can’t legally clean it. People need to be reminded to maintain their own ditches, so the water can flow easily to the city system.”
If and when a storm hits, Lowder said, private citizens need to stay off roads and streets.
“I don’t know how many people we had trying to drive through water during the last few times we flooded,” Lowder said. “Some of them had to be rescued, and that endangered the first responders as well as the private individuals. Just a few inches of water on the roadway will cause a car to float. Even a high-clearance truck can get caught by the strong currents we see sometimes. The safest thing to do is evacuate before a storm if you’re in a flood-prone area, and stay inside until the flooding has gone away.”
While fire and emergency personnel would never hesitate to save a life, Lowder said, recently approved legislation should give joyriders and sightseers a reason to stay home, even if they aren’t afraid of high water
“If you drive around a barricade and get into trouble,” Lowder said, “the responding agencies can seek to recoup the costs for that rescue. I haven’t heard of anyone doing that, of course, and no one I know would ever consider that when it comes to saving someone’s life, but it could cost you a pretty penny if you ignore a barricade and get into deep water.”
While officials are focusing on preparations to reduce flooding, as well as response to high water, Lowder said the high winds of any storm system are still nothing to disregard.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘little’ tropical storm or a ‘minor’ hurricane,” Lowder said. “There’s no such thing as a harmless storm when it’s aiming at your house.”