Emergency Services On Alert

There’s a flood watch in effect until 6 a.m. Thursday, and local emergency services are preparing for the worst, as well as offering their best advice to citizens.

Orange County Emergency Services Director Jim Groves says that one of his major concerns is that all Orange County residents have access to updates and information from the Weather Service.

“Unfortunately, it’s called a flash flood because it happens in a hurry, versus a traditional flood, which may occur over hours or even days,” says Groves. “It’s been our history here in the county, especially in the south side of the county – Carrboro and Chapel Hill – that these floods happen within just a few hours. And we have to have a really quick way of notifying people.”

Groves says the Weather Service is still the fastest way to get the word out. But Orange County Emergency Services will also be using a Reverse-911 system to notify people living in the worst hazard areas.

By now, Orange County has a pretty good idea of where the worst flooding problems can be expected.

“Estes Drive near 15-501,” says Groves. “Folks are familiar with Camelot Village, the Brookwood area, and those apartments across on South Estes, on the other side of Fordham Boulevard.

“We also know, in the Carrboro area, depending how the rain comes, there is an area there at Smith Level and Merritt Mill. That mobile home park down there has flooded in the past as well.”

Groves advises people to make sure they stay tuned to television or radio, to receive updates and warnings as they come out.

“Have a plan, a way to get out, before the water starts to rise,” he says. “Go to higher ground, have someone that they can meet with. Never walk across water that’s over six inches high. It could sweep your feet out from under you, and you’re going to go downstream, and it’s not going to be good.”

He also warns motorists never to drive across water if you cannot see the roadway, because it could be washed out. As the National Weather Service famously cautions: “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”

Emergency Management Coordinator for the Town of Chapel Hill Matt Sullivan said that people who were prepared in advance for last summer’s flooding were a major factor is preventing physical injuries.

“We did have some property damage,” he says. “But throughout the storm, we didn’t have any physical injuries, which I think is a testament to, not only our citizens being prepared, but also, to our Emergency Response plans.”

Sullivan says the town regularly takes measures to mitigate the damage of any storm event.

“Our stormwater maintenance folks go out and regularly maintain and look at the storm inlets to make sure that they’re clear of leaves and sticks and debris,” he says. “Because we want to make sure that those inlets and the stormwater system can operate at its maximum capacity.”

Sullivan says that whenever new development occurs in Chapel Hill, the newer stormwater systems continue to be built to bigger standards. As for how much the current stormwater system can handle, Sullivan says the study that could determine that would cost Chapel Hill between $15 million and $20 million.

To obtain regular media releases that include updates on storm conditions, you send a request to info@townofchapelhill.org.


From Football To Floods, Collaboration Is Key To Public Safety

Orange County is generally regarded as a safe place to live, but local public safety officials say collaboration is the key to facing future challenges confronting our community.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says the town has instituted new policies that allow for unified command during any emergency.

“We are going to implement a system in those moments that allows for an individual to direct the actions of multiple departments, the entire array of town employees,” says Kleinschmidt.

Recent weather events have put those plans to the test. This winter, when icy weather posed problems for many commuters, UNC Public Safety Chief Jeff McCracken says Chapel Hill Transit was crucial to moving people safely around town.

“We work very closely with Chapel Hill Transit on weather-related incidents to make sure that we can get our people back to their vehicles,” says McCracken.

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton says the same proved true when the Rocky Brook Mobile Home Park flooded during last June’s epic rain.

“We relied on all our partnerships to get those residents what they needed,” recalls Horton. “I believe we also used some buses to transport them to the Century Center for temporary shelter until we could get them to hotels.”

Some big events are celebrations rather than emergencies, but officials say planning for football games can be just as complex as responding to flash floods.

Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens notes that even long-awaited improvements like the soon-to-open Riverwalk can pose new challenges.

“We’re putting in extra money; we want to start right from the get-go to make sure we have lots of presence for the police on bicycles and in cars,” says Stevens. “Also, kudos to Orange Rural Fire, they’re doing now lots of special training. How do you do rescue in a river? We’re going to have a lot more people on the river, so we better be prepared.”

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue says big events call for a bigger space for emergency response planning.

“One of the takeaways that’s very clear is that we need some additional emergency operations center facilities where we can get all of our public safety leaders together in a space that allows us to work with the technology that we all rely upon now,” says Blue. “Right now, the Town of Chapel Hill’s Emergency Operation Center is a very small room in the basement of Fire Station Number One. You can get about six or eight people in there comfortably. We feel the strain of those facilities when we have those large scale events.”

While public safety officials at all levels of local government are working to coordinate their agencies, Chapel Hill Fire Chief Dan Jones says individuals and families need to consider their own action plans.

“No community, regardless of its size, can have enough resources to be prepared for every potential event. It’s just impossible; it’s not affordable,” says Jones. “I think citizens need to take more responsibility on themselves to have a plan for when these events occur- how they’re going to get home, how they’re going to get together with their families.”

These comments were made during the Public Safety hour of the 2014 WCHL Community Forum. You can listen to the entire forum here.


Flash Flooding Leaves Many Stranded Across OC

ORANGE COUNTY – It rained and rained and rained Sunday, leaving Orange County residents stranded in flash flood waters, whether in their cars, at  home, or out walking. Situations quickly became treacherous, and emergency service workers had to act quickly to get people out of danger.

Leonard Maynard watched in disbelief at the scene on South Estes Drive. He was waiting to hear if his girlfriend, Ophelia, could make it out of her apartment  safely.

“I’m waiting for my girlfriend. She is stranded out there!” Maynard said.

The section of Estes Drive between Franklin Street and Fordham Boulevard no longer resembled a road or shopping center, but rather a fast-moving stream. Maynard said Ophelia had called him in a panic.

“She called me and told me to come and get her. She had just woken up and told me the water was up to her bed. I said ‘You have got to be kidding me!” Maynard said.

Emergency Service workers waded out into the rushing water to reach those who were stranded, and in the deepest parts of the water, used a boat.

“She told me everything in her apartment is destroyed. She’s okay but she can’t get out,” Maynard said, giving a sigh of relief.

Other areas across the county were submerged in water as well, including Umstead Drive, East Gate Shopping Center, Granville Towers, parts of Franklin Street and Rosemary Street, and the other side of Estes Drive.

Eli Lack has lived in Chapel Hill for 30 years. He watched on with neighbors as two cars were stranded in the intersection of Greensboro Street and Estes Extension in water up to the tops of their tires.

“I’ve never seen anything like this here. I saw those two cars get stuck before I got here, but other cars have made it through or are turning around,” Lack said.

Braxton Foushee watched from the other side of the road as Orange County EMS workers arrived on scene to help the two stranded cars.

“I saw it when it first happened and I knew they were going to get stuck!” Foushee said.

Kay Crissman was driving down Greensboro Street, but reached a point where the water was too high to continue.

“It did come up quickly. I drove through water up to the top of my tires. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I also knew I wasn’t willing to drive through a creek later. Then I arrived down here [Estes Ext. and Greensboro Street] and I knew I couldn’t drive any further,” Crissman said.

Carrboro Police set up a barricade between the entrance of Estes Park Apartments and the railroad tracks on Estes Extension.

Robert Fulwood has seen many floods during his life, and was worried about the aftermath of an event like this.

“The clean up is normally the worst part of it because this time of year you have the heat, you have insects, and reptiles, and germs,” Fulwood said.

High waters were not the only danger of the day. There were numerous reports of downed trees and power lines, debris in the streets, and traffic lights out across the area.

The Chatham County 911 Call Center experienced an outage and was forced to redirect calls. OC EMS set up a shelter at Smith Middle School to help house people displaced because of the storm.