Challenges for Carolinas to extend long after storm
It will not be CONWAY, S.C. — easy drying out, fixing up and rethinking whole ways of life in a region drenched and deeply shaken by more than 8 trillion gallons of rain.
But that is the challenge facing the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence and a wearying week of heroic rescues, hard choices, potential environmental crises — including a dam breach Friday that allowed coal ash to seep into a river — and a vast response that is still unfolding.
The storm and its subsequent flooding have killed at least 42 people. The threats have not abated, particularly here in South Carolina’s low-lying coastal plain, where the Waccamaw River set a record Friday and will keep rising into the new week, threatening neighborhoods, infrastructure and lives anew.
Already, the emergency and recovery response is staggering in its scope, with more than 6,000 National Guard soldiers and thousands more federal disaster-response workers spread across the region. They have 6 million emergency meals to hand out, 4 million liters of water, 700,000 blankets and 6,000 cots. Along with state and local governments, federal officials will also have to manage a daunting bureaucratic challenge as they attempt to rebuild and revive a vast area that covers hard-hit mega-farms, tourist zones and pockets of deep rural poverty.
It is too early to judge fully the effectiveness of a response that is only beginning. Checks must still be distributed to victims, emergency loans granted to businesses, and homes rebuilt — or bought out. There are mounting concerns about environmental consequences, like spills of coal ash and hog waste, that will test regulators. But so far, unlike the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, or Hurricane Maria, which pummeled Puerto Rico last year, there have been no charges of large-scale government incompetence.
The displaced, thousands of them, landed, safe if not particularly comfortable, in scores of shelters, and the evacuation of the coastline was a generally orderly affair. In South Carolina, in what is now a well-practiced routine, officials reversed the flow of traffic on some major roads, creating more ways to get away from the Atlantic.
State government officials believe technology helped: Traffic to a North Carolina website that allows residents to sign up for text-message alerts when the water is rising in their neighborhoods increased more than eightfold from the traffic during Hurricane Matthew, in 2016. A South Carolina mobile app let users know whether they were in an evacuation zone, and where to find shelter.
Local governments took the threat seriously, relying on their experience from Matthew and other recent storms to identify neighborhoods most likely to flood. In Kinston, North Carolina, officials ordered dozens of redand-white signs and posted them on the most vulnerable streets: “THIS AREA PRONE TO FLOODING BE CAUTIOUS,” they declared.
The long-term recovery work has just begun, and it is certain to test the competence, and burnish or break the reputations, of a roster of high-profile players.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking to show its mettle after the debacle of the post-Maria response in Puerto Rico. Although President Trump celebrated the effort as a success, the agency itself acknowledged it had inadequate supplies and underestimated what it would need.
In the spotlight is Brock Long, Trump’s FEMA chief, who received accolades for the agency’s response during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma but has been under scrutiny for his personal use of government vehicles.
Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, must also prove himself after criticism that his administration spent only a fraction of disaster funding that Congress allocated to the state for rebuilding after Hurricane Matthew.
(Cooper’s office notes that the state has spent a total of $751 million of state, local and federal money on Matthew recovery, and the governor and legislative leaders are planning for a special session focused on Florence relief.)
Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, a Republican, also has something to prove — that he can step out from the shadow of former Gov. Nikki Haley.
McMaster, the former lieutenant governor, ascended to his state’s top job last year when Haley joined the Trump administration.
National Guard soldiers stack sandbags along Highway 501 in Conway, S.C. Emergency and recovery response to Hurricane Florence is staggering in scope and the threat has not abated.