Hurricane Florence five days out from NC coast; FEMA mobilizing

Nag’s Head, North Carolina. ( Photo: Shutterstock )

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet so far, but that’s about to change: Hurricane Florence is gaining strength and headed due west, directly toward the US East Coast. The spaghetti model below shows that a significant number of the current simulations have Florence hitting North Carolina. Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Isaac, which developed behind (east of) Florence and is headed for the Caribbean and Lower Antilles, is expected to be upgraded to a hurricane at some point this evening.

 ( Map: Cyclocane )
( Map: Cyclocane )

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasts that Florence will hit the North Carolina coast as a Category 4 hurricane at 11 PM on Thursday night. Category 4 hurricanes are defined as having sustained winds between 131 and 155 mph. Fortunately, 11 PM on Thursday is very close to low tide at both Wilmington Beach, on the southern end of North Carolina’s coast, and Kitty Hawk, near the northern end of the coast—that should help mitigate some of the storm surge.

However, a large portion of the state’s coast lies on the Outer Banks, a two hundred mile long chain of barrier islands that extends far out into the Atlantic Ocean. Anyone who’s been to the Outer Banks knows exactly how vulnerable they are to a hurricane: the average elevation of Dare County, which contains the Outer Banks, is 11.3 feet above sea level. North Carolina Highway 12, a two lane road often covered in sand from normal wind activity, can easily be severed by a storm that moves sand.

The ocean is already pushing the whole island chain westward at a rate of between 50 and 200 feet every hundred years, but violent storms like hurricanes can carve dramatic features into the fragile islands in a matter of days.

The two most recent hurricanes to have hit the Outer Banks are Hurricane Irene, which made landfall on the Outer Banks on August 27, 2011, as a Category 1, and Hurricane Sandy, which affected North Carolina in late October, 2012. Sandy flooded Ocracoke Village under two feet of water and closed sections of Highway 12. 

Irene flooded Pamlico Sound, the body of water between the Outer Banks and the mainland, and then the sound washed away large sections of Highway 12, cutting two new inlets to the ocean. After Hatteras Island’s 15 MW backup diesel generator exhausted its supplies, an emergency ferry service established by the state brought over two smaller 2 MW generators. Hatteras was flooded with six feet of water and many homes were simply carried away.

The risk that Hurricane Florence poses to North Carolina is clear: property destruction, damage to transportation infrastructure, loss of electricity and running water.

FreightWaves spoke to Mathew Soloff, VP of Sales at Lync America, and Keith Gray, VP of Operations at Lync America, by phone about how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is preparing for Florence. Lync America is a Chattanooga-based freight brokerage.

“It’s pedal to the metal right now,” said Soloff. “We’re definitely seeing activity ramp up—[FEMA] gets everything in place, and once the storm hits, everything goes quiet for a while, then it ramps up again to deal with the aftermath.”

Soloff and Gray said that FEMA was fully prepared for Hurricane Harvey last year, but the damage was greater than the agency expected. This year, they said, FEMA is “getting even more of a jump on it and trying to prepare even better for what might happen. They’re a little further ahead of it and preparing a little more aggressively this time around.”

“We’re seeing lots of moves from the Southeast to the East Coast,” said Soloff. “We don’t know where it’s gonna hit. It’s really hard to predict this far in advance and position your [trucking assets] to be able to participate in disaster relief. And you don’t want to put yourself in the eye of the storm for better rates.”

“We got our first phone call on Friday in regard to Florence, and we’ve already seen requests for over 150 trucks already, and that’s just to get a little prepared. There’s really no telling how much volume you’ll see—it’s very unpredictable and it just depends on the storm,” Soloff continued.

“FEMA has four distribution centers across the US: Maryland, Georgia, Texas, and California. When a hurricane is on its way to the US, they move anything from emergency meals, to cots, water, lighting, generators, anything that would be used in the event of a disaster. They move loads from their DCs to Air Force bases or airports where there’s space to stage a lot of trailers,” Gray commented.

The Lync America executives said that FEMA just diverted a number of trucks from Dover Air Force Base to the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Martinsburg, WV, for disaster relief staging. They explained that it’s very difficult to pre-position emergency resources and trucking assets close to an expected impacted area, because hurricanes can abruptly change course. There’s a risk that everything will have to be repositioned in an area with blocked roads, no electricity, and flash floods, unnecessarily slowing down the relief process.

Gray said that owner-operators participating in FEMA disaster relief can expect to be offered daily rates to drive up to 500 miles per day in a given storm-affected region. The contracts are built on daily rates because mileage on congested and potentially damaged roads can be unpredictable. 

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John Paul Hampstead, Associate Editor

John Paul writes about current events and economics, especially politics, finance, and commodities, and holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Michigan. In previous lives John Paul studied Shakespeare in London and Buddhism in India, but now he focuses on transportation and logistics in the heart of Freight Alley--Chattanooga. He spends his free time with his wife and daughter herding cats, collecting books, and walking alongside the Tennessee River.

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