Eerily familiar--"But many people didn't listen -- or didn't believe what they were hearing." "Tolbert said the public must also take more responsibility for its own disaster preparation and safey instead of expecting government rescuers to show up immediately. . . . The difficulty we've had. . . is the expectation of local governments and the public for an immediate response. It's 'the 911 sydrome.' . . .The resources are not available." : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Sunday, October 10, 1999

Why epic flooding took state by surprise

Though North Carolina got ready for a strong hurricane, the volume of rain flabbergasted even weather forecasters.


When the swirling brown waters from Hurricane Floyd spilled across Eastern North Carolina, neither the state nor its people were prepared for what would turn out to be the flood of the century: Forecasters had little experience with a storm as large as Floyd and said they couldn't foresee the degree of flooding that was to come. Residents, inexperienced with floodwaters, ventured into the unknown and died. Most of the 48 deaths came after Floyd's torrential rains subsided. Hundreds of other residents were stranded by the waters. Some counties described scenes of chaos as officials tried to figure out which roads were washed out. By the time enough swift-water rescuers arrived from the hilly west, where river rampages are more common, more than 1,400 roads Down East were impassable. For the first few days there weren't enough helicopters to do the jobs trucks normally would. And official flood-plain maps for many of the worst-hit communities turned out to be outdated, which made evacuations, rescues and supply deliveries all the more difficult. "This is a battle that will be studied for a long time," said Richard Moore, the state's secretary of crime control and public safety. "It has unfortunately become a benchmark for inland flooding for the entire United States." He said the state is studying what went right, what went wrong and what should be done differently if another disaster the size of Floyd should strike. Veteran weather forecasters found it hard to believe any storm -- even a huge hurricane such as Floyd -- could dump such an incredible amount of rain over such a wide area. The forecast models used by the National Weather Service in Raleigh to craft their flood warnings for Floyd were based on predictions that the storm would drop 8 to 10 inches of rain over much of eastern North Carolina. Instead, Floyd dumped almost twice that much in some places. The water had nowhere to go but where it had never been seen. The results were 500-year floods in those communities and many others -- the kind of cataclysmic inundations predicted to occur only once or twice each millennium. "The models we looked at showed record flooding in many places even with only 8 to 10 inches of rain," said Steve Harned, director of the National Weather Service office in Raleigh. "The rains from Floyd were so far beyond anything we have ever seen that it couldn't really be forecasted with any degree of accuracy." Even the federal government's top emergency manager was surprised by Floyd's rain and flooding. "They didn't tell us we were going to get 18 to 20 inches," said James Lee Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "They told us we were going to get 10 to 12 inches in isolated spots. Nobody was ready for this." Even so, weather officials say that they gave people plenty of notice that things would be bad. The flood warnings issued as Hurricane Floyd bore down on the North Carolina coast were ample. "We don't use the word 'biblical,' " Harned said, "but we probably came as close as we ever will with the flood warnings for Floyd. They were the most strongly worded flood watches and warnings we have ever written." State and local officials, too, rang out public alerts louder, and earlier, than ever before. But the huge hype that built up in anticipation of Floyd generally missed the mark. Most of it focused on the killer winds and tremendous storm surge expected from what initially was a Category 4 hurricane. Inland rainfall was expected to touch off extensive flooding, but no one looked for anything much worse than what occurred after Hurricane Fran three years ago. As a result, many state and local officials -- and much of the public -- were slow to grasp the disaster's delayed devastation. Like Witt, local emergency management officials in some of the hardest-hit areas said they were stunned by Floyd's awesome destructive power, despite the early flood warnings. "The weather service was telling us on Tuesday they were pretty sure the rainfall and flooding could be worse than Fran, almost two days before Floyd hit us," said Joe Gurley, head of emergency management in Wayne County, where Goldsboro and surrounding communities were swamped for weeks by Floyd's floods. He said ominous warnings the weather service issued early on Sept. 14 -- while the center of Floyd was still over the Bahamas -- prompted his office to begin calling residents along the Neuse River and its tributaries, cautioning them to watch out for rapidly rising flood waters. Gurley said Wayne County emergency management personnel also went door-to-door to warn residents of the approaching danger on Sept. 15 as Floyd neared landfall near Wilmington. "The weather guys did a fantastic job this time getting the word out early to everyone, probably the best they have ever done with a hurricane," Gurley said. "No one has ever seen anything like this around here, even the old-timers. That was exactly what the weather service was telling us to expect." Listening, disbelieving

But many people didn't listen -- or didn't believe what they were hearing. By the time people realized how bad the flooding was, many couldn't go anywhere because more than 1,400 roads were flooded or had sections washed out. In county after county, the scene was chaotic. "We called the counties and asked how many roads they had out, and they said, 'We have no idea,' " Don Goins, chief engineer of the state Department of Transportation, told transportation board members Thursday. Three weeks after Floyd, 232 roads and more than a dozen bridges remain closed. Repairing all of them is expected to take a year and about $70 million. David McKoy, the state's new transportation secretary, told the transportation board Thursday that the department's employees responded well. "We're going to debrief this storm and figure out what we could do better," he said. "We know we didn't do 100 percent. But we tried as hard as we could. The Marines couldn't have done any better." Bob Mattocks, a transportation board member from Pollocksville, a Jones County town on the flooded Trent River, replied that what the state needs most is a better ability to predict hurricane rainfall and resulting flooding. "Other than that," he said, "everybody did everything they could." Eric Tolbert, the state's emergency management director, said North Carolina probably could not afford the cost of raising the thousands of roads and bridges Down East high enough to avoid widespread inundation after 20 inches of rain. With roads flooded, boats and helicopters became the main means of bringing people out and taking supplies and medicine in. But there was a shortage of helicopters when they were needed most, because most of North Carolina's military and civilian choppers had been moved out of the storm's path, Tolbert said. Most of those that remained lacked either hoists or radios that could communicate with rescuers on the ground -- something he wants to change. Even so, he said, that lack did not cripple the government's response to an unprecedented natural disaster. "When you go out into the field and see the magnitude of this flood, it's a miracle that we had only 48 deaths," he said. Future hurricanes can be counted on to cause flooding, but governments and the public can react better to them, those involved in the Floyd response agree. Flood rescuers needed

A swift-water rescue expert later criticized the state for not deploying more people like him to the east. Tolbert said the state needs more and better-trained rescuers of flood victims. But he said even in retrospect he would not move more of the state's water-rescue teams east because, the hurricane was projected to go farther west than it did. If the rescuers had gone east and then the storm went west, he said, the problem could have been even worse because rivers run faster in the Piedmont and the mountains than in the coastal plain. "Where in the state are we not subject to flash flooding? Nowhere," he said. "So you can't mobilize all those resources into place pre-event." Floyd forced two major innovations on the fly: The governor's office set up an emergency information phone line, and the transportation department posted daily updates on hundreds of road conditions on its Internet Web page, which has been viewed more than 2 million times since the hurricane hit. Moore and Tolbert said they and other state emergency managers will meet soon with county officials to formally assess how they performed, what went right and what they could do better next time. Later they expect to press for more annual state and federal funding for disaster preparedness.

Moore said he expects the review will also prompt better planning for swift-water evacuations and rescues; more transportation alternatives and evacuation routes, including the ability to turn all traffic on Interstate 40 from Wilmington to Raleigh northwest in two hours, using all four lanes; and better flood-plain maps. A siege of hurricanes

Moore said it will be a worthwhile exercise partly because of predictions that a periodic surge in the number and severity of Atlantic hurricanes has arrived after more than a generation without back-to-back monster cyclones. "I hope it was once in 500 years, and we won't have another case where we've got 1,000 roads washed out," he said. "But now that we know, we'll plan accordingly." Tolbert said the public must also take more responsibility for its own disaster preparation and safety instead of expecting government rescuers to show up immediately. "You have people in a scramble because of their own lack of preparedness for basic needs: water, food, diapers, baby food," he said. "The difficulty we've had since Hurricane Hugo is the expectation of local governments and the public for an immediate response. It's 'the 911 syndrome.' "Neither this state nor the federal government will ever be able to meet that expectation. The resources are not available. "At some point, people need to become prepared for what we constantly say: to be self-contained for three days. That's the highest level of response we can ever expect from government."

-- Old Git (, October 10, 1999


old Git,

A fairfax county paper--"The springfield connection".

Had a report of the top council members (Fairfax) urging the public. (note urging) To prepare for disruptions in Electricity,water,phones,sewage,heat,food,medicine,etc.

I'm not kidding!!!

Later in the meeting one of the big brains said-"Fairfax county has close to a million people, we cant possibly assist that many so people may want to prepare for-------------------WEEks!!!

-- D.B. (, October 10, 1999.

D.B., do you have a URL?

-- Old Git (, October 10, 1999.

82 days.


-- Jack (jsprat@eld.~net), October 10, 1999.

America is not alone, we sure saw that "911 syndrome" in the Serbian population. Some had large freezers as a norm stockpiled for the winter, and others were merely grasshoppers. I remember one photo of a family going into their basement due to the sirens, which meant of course they could be trapped for some time in that basement, and they carried a soda liter of water as the whole preparation. There were also articles about families racing out to all the different bakeries breaking anti-hoarding laws that went into effect to buy fresh bread to hold them over as preparations. We see that same bread and milk day before preparations as a nation everywhere. At the time I was corresponding with a young male computer programming in Macedonia about Y2K and all that I have just mentioned, and I learned the urban Macedonians as a norm have countryside plots where they grow produce for themselves against economic shock and disaster. Macedonians may be the global shining stars as ants. They must not have a 911 system to ruin themselves.

-- Paula (, October 10, 1999.

OG, Your headline pretty much sums up what GI's have known from day one. I think this was also FEMA's stance until Y2K rolled around and miraculously lessened everyone's responsibility for self-preservation.

Unfortunately, most of us, even us GI types, will plead for the US Cavalry to ride over the hill and save us if we have nowhere else to look for help. My guess is that 150 years ago it never would have occurred to anyone to expect Washington to manage disasters. Probably in 50 more years we'll expect Washington to rotate our tires every 6,000 miles.

-- Puddintame (, October 10, 1999.

Hello, hello, 911? Hello, hello? ... My cat Fluffy is so very hungry, the poor thing. ... Yes, this is an emergency. Fluffy is a very finicky eater, and the grocery store is out of "Pussy Treats". Do you know what stores would have some? ...

-- A (, October 10, 1999.

Hmmmmnnnnnn! "forecasters had no previous experience....couldn't foresee the degree of flooding to come". What about hurricane Mitch that hit Honduras, Nicarauga last year? It dumped more than 20 inches in some areas. That should have told them something!


-- Taz (, October 10, 1999.

A is A@A, Hello,Hello, this is 911, As far as Fluffy goes we recommend you kill,skin and chop Fluffy up add him to the taco's. 300 Billion undernourshed can't be wrong!

-- H.skinney Kissinger (, October 10, 1999.

Ah, Taz, this is something I have a bit of experience with. the forcasters were/are using a WSR-88 Dopler Radar system that has the ability to track and show rainfall all over its coverage area. there are algorhythy present built in to predict flooding, based on rainfall over specific terrain, and using other variables. If the algorhythy do NOT HAVE referents for specific quantities of rain over so large an area (the case here) then they can not predict the river flow rate, nor how high the water will get.


-- Chuck, a night driver (, October 10, 1999.

PS if your radar suggests to you that you are dealing with 3 or 4 acre feet of water, and the most you have EVER dealt with is .66 acre feet over a MUCH smaller area and a longer time, your formula will NOT produce usable data that will make sense to the forcasters. Primarily due to the inability to take into account the saturation level of the soil.


-- Chuck, a night driver (, October 10, 1999.

WRAL-TV reported, just as Floyd reached the coast of NC:

"A flash flood warning is in effect for central North Carolina, and a flash flood watch is in effect for most of the viewing area. Many rivers in the area could crest more than 10 feet above flood level."

And the N&O said: "In addition, areas near the center of the storm could be drenched with eight inches or more of rain, which could touch off extensive flooding. "

Floods were indeed predicted before Floyd hit the coast. And anyone listening to a portable radio after the power went out would have heard numerous weather warnings about flash floods in their area. I think the major problem was they just couldn't believe it would be that bad.

-- Old Git (, October 10, 1999.

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