As Hurricane Chris, the first hurricane of the tropical season, spun harmlessly off the Atlantic Coast on June 21, town officials met to review the town’s municipal hurricane operations plan.
The plan is designed for a worst-case scenario, which Wrightsville Beach has not seen since Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954 on a high tide and full moon, destroying 200 houses and damaging 500 more.
But the town prefers to measure catastrophic events against the 1996 storm, Hurricane Fran, said fire chief Frank Smith, who conducted the meeting. "Even though it was certainly a major event for us … it really could be a whole lot worse."
Smith stressed that Wrightsville Beach needs to plan to be able to be on its own for 72 hours; historically, that’s how long it takes for outside resources to get on the ground after a natural disaster. Citizens should also develop preseason plans for their homes, families, boats and pets so as to not be caught off guard when a hurricane approaches.
The town has three operational conditions in the event of an approaching hurricane, and will conduct a meeting upon the declaration of each to assess the current state of affairs.
Condition 3 is declared when the National Weather Service issues a hurricane watch, meaning hurricane conditions are possible in the next 36 hours. During this time they will test equipment, review plans and phone emergency contacts.
Condition 2 is declared when a hurricane warning is issued. The NWS declares a hurricane warning when hurricane conditions are expected in the next 36 hours. All normal nonessential town services cease and all efforts are directed toward storm preparedness and preparing to evacuate the public if necessary.
Condition 1 is declared if, based on the recommendation of the emergency management director and New Hanover County Emergency Operations Center, the board of aldermen decides to issue a mandatory evacuation.
Decisions regarding hurricane preparation and possible evacuation will be based on the cone of uncertainty surrounding the projected path of a hurricane. The size of the cone of certainty is based on two-thirds of forecast error during the past five years. During the past 15 years, the National Hurricane Center has been able to reduce forecast error by 50 percent.
In the event that an evacuation occurs, the town will notify the public via broadcast media, its website and mobile PA broadcasts. Citizens can also register their cell phones to receive telephone notifications. The town’s goal is to have everyone evacuated four hours prior to the onset of storm-force winds, and it will cease response operations when winds reach 50 mph.
Mainland evacuation facilities for town officials will be spread out between the First Citizens Bank on Eastwood Road, the Hampton Inn and the New Hanover County Library on Military Cutoff Road.
These facilities will not be used in the event of a Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane, and New Hanover County will shelter citizens in Johnston County.
A small crew of police and firefighters will be assembled in the downstairs lobby of the First Citizens Bank in case of emergencies and will launch rescue operations on a case-by-case basis.
After a storm passes, a five-stage plan for re-entry grants municipal staff and emergency personnel first re-entry. Next, provided the roads are passable, limited public access will be given for damage assessment. If the roads are not passable, municipal staff will take photographs of the island to be viewed online by the public.
Residents and business owners will be granted access next, followed by contractors assisting residents. Finally, unrestricted public access will resume.
Residents are reminded they will need their 2012 Wrightsville Beach Vehicle Tax decals to gain re-entry.
As explained by fire chief Smith, the big job begins after the storm passes and clean up begins. The cost of a 30-day operation for a Category 4 hurricane is estimated at $10 million.