Weather News

NCDOT’s Hurricane Dorian prep includes getting drones ready to fly after the storm

The N.C. Department of Transportation’s preparations for Hurricane Dorian mean moving some workers, supplies and equipment to Eastern North Carolina, where there’s a greater chance the storm will flood or wash out roads.

Now getting ready for a hurricane also means assembling teams of people who can fly drones after the storm has passed, to collect video and photo images of the damage. Contractors and employees from across NCDOT who have the proper licenses and certifications to fly drones are being sent to Eastern North Carolina, said James Pearce, spokesman for the Division of Aviation.

“As much as possible, we try to get them in position so they’re close to the impacted areas,” Pearce said. “We want to be ready to go as soon as the storm passes.”

NCDOT first used drones to get a bird’s-eye view of storm damage after Hurricane Florence last fall. The department deployed 15 teams of two to four people to capture thousands of images at dozens of places where roads were impassable.

The aerial images help engineers and others determine the extent of the damage and make decisions about repairs and the need for detours, said Pearce. NCDOT also makes them available through the press and on social media to show the public why roads in their area are closed.

“It was very valuable in Florence, because we were able to show people how widespread the damage was,” he said.

NCDOT says its drone flights after Florence were the most extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor a disaster anywhere in the country at that time.

Pearce said NCDOT has eight drone teams ready to go after Dorian, but could add more if needed. Some are already collecting pre-storm images of trouble spots, including sections of N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks and the place where U.S. 421 washed out near Wilmington after Florence.

Pearce said the NCDOT teams keep in touch with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Guard and other search and rescue groups to make sure their drone flights don’t interfere with planes and helicopters. The Division of Aviation asks hobbyists not to fly drones during or after the storm because they could disrupt searches, rescues or deliveries of emergency supplies.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.
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