Less than two years ago, Hurricane Matthew caused some of the worst flooding in North Carolina history, forcing the N.C. Department of Transportation to clear and fix hundreds of flooded and washed-out roads.
Now with Hurricane Florence expected to slam the state on Thursday, NCDOT is already forced to apply some of the lessons it learned from Matthew and earlier storms.
Among them: Have plenty of pipes on hand. With hundreds of culverts damaged or destroyed by Matthew, NCDOT found it didn’t have enough pipes to make repairs quickly.
“When we ordered material in the past, if we got it within two to four weeks, we were fine,” Tim Little, NCDOT’s chief engineer, said in an interview. “But after Matthew, we wanted it in one or two days.”
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Now, NCDOT has plastic, aluminum and concrete pipe stockpiled in counties throughout the state, so it won’t have to wait on orders from suppliers.
And when it does come time to replace a damaged pipe, NCDOT is probably going to put in a bigger one. After Matthew, engineers discovered that the old pipes often weren’t big enough to handle the flow of water, which in some cases backed up as if behind a dam. In most cases, NCDOT installed larger-diameter pipes when it made repairs, Little said, which should help in those places this time around.
“We feel more confident about those pipes being able to handle the water,” he said.
After every big storm, NCDOT looks back at what areas flooded and how badly. When bad weather threatens again, it shares that information with law enforcement agencies, school administrators and local emergency managers. When a storm like Florence approaches, NCDOT stages barricades and warning signs near flood-prone areas, so they can be quickly pulled in place to stop people from driving into flood waters.
Heeding those warning signs and barricades is important, state officials stress, because too often drivers go around them and get in trouble. Of the 26 people killed as a result of Matthew, 17 were driving or were passengers in vehicles on flooded roads that were swept into deep water.
Hurricane Matthew damaged or destroyed more than 660 state-maintained roads in North Carolina in October 2016. By the following spring, all but 14 had been reopened.
On Monday, NCDOT released an inventory of people and equipment it has ready to respond to Hurricane Florence: 2,166 employees, 1,284 trucks, 1,086 chain saws, 147 front-end loaders, 219 motor graders, 202 backhoes, 2,877 barricades, 1,488 road-closed signs and 2,853 high water signs.
“We are prepping crews across NC to respond rapidly to Hurricane Florence,” Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon tweeted.
Drivers can check the status of state-maintained roads on an interactive map at tims.ncdot.gov/tims/. NCDOT warns that during a big storm there can be a lag time between when a road becomes impassable when it gets marked as closed on the website.
“We have a very large road network, and with flooding and other things, we physically have to get out to drive all those areas and check those locations,” said NCDOT spokeswoman Nicole Meister.
Meister said drivers should stay off the road during the height of the storm and immediately afterward, to give law enforcement agencies and NCDOT time to confirm which roads are passable and which are not.
Coastal evacuation routes can be found at www.ncdot.gov/travel-maps/maps/Pages/evacuation-routes.aspx.