Let’s learn everything we can from Florence’s cruel, costly lessons

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Hindsight is 20/20, the saying goes, but it’s still helpful — and necessary.

With that in mind, local, state and federal officials met last Tuesday to discuss what went right, what went wrong and what needs improvement in New Hanover County’s response to Hurricane Florence.

Much of that response, of course, is still happening. But it was smart to meet in person and get some initial observations on the table before too much time has passed. We hope the meeting was the first of many, not only for New Hanover County, but all areas that were severely affected by Florence. We suspect state and federal officials will conduct similar “debriefings.”

No matter how much time is spent on emergency-response training, simulations, etc., an actual storm will always be the best teacher. It’s a teacher, though, that comes at an unthinkable cost. So it’s vital that we comb through the response for every lesson and important piece of data that can be obtained.

Since this was an extraordinary storm — Florence packed the winds of Fran and the rain of Floyd — and brought unprecedented flooding to some areas, it might be beneficial to ask an outside consultant to provide such an analysis. Having been so busy and close to the situation — including the unavoidable emotional element — makes it difficult, if not impossible, for officials to see not only the big picture, but also important details that might otherwise be overlooked.

We were impressed with the passionate leadership shown by a host of area and state leaders. They should be proud of their work. But having a dispassionate, evidence/data-based analysis of the response would be very valuable, we believe, especially since there were significant new problems.

We were especially struck by the widespread major flooding in parts of New Hanover County, the loss of road access to Wilmington and, what we believe was the most serious issue, two instances in which the water supply was in jeopardy — the failure of a backup fuel source for generators at a CFPUA treatment facility and a structural threat to a vital raw water supply main near the washed-out area of U.S. 421 at the New Hanover-Pender county line.

In both cases, creative solutions were found and the water kept flowing. But both instances were too close for comfort and illustrate vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. (You may recall that a section of raw-water pipeline ruptured after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, leading to a water emergency.)

Speaking of creative solutions, it should be noted that we’ll never be prepared for every scenario during an emergency. Being flexible and able to ad-lib is a valuable quality. (We learned that lesson at the StarNews when we had to evacuate our building after generator failures and significant water leaks, neither expected.) All those who initiated such actions and did the work in a host of crisis moments deserve our highest praise.

Beyond recovery, we also face the difficult challenge of trying to make our region less susceptible to the extensive damage we see all around us. We should examine each storm-related death and serious injury and try to learn how people might better keep themselves safe, while acknowledging some probably were not preventable.

As the days pass, we will learn more about the impact of Florence and better understand the response. We should closely examine various policies and land-use decisions that might have made the impact worse.

It is essential that we collect extensive, accurate and well-documented storm-response information — from water reliability to road access; health care facilities to emergency communications.

How we act on that information will be up to our leaders and to each of us, but let’s at least collect it. We might discover some fairly easy and inexpensive changes that need to be made.

Hurricane Florence killed at least 36 of our fellow North Carolinians, and, to put it bluntly, beat the hell out of coastal North Carolina. If there is anything good to be salvaged from this storm, we need to find it and put it to use. We’ve already paid a huge price for it.