Emergency officials, including the Burke County fire marshal, have returned home after Hurricane Dorian left some areas of North Carolina paralyzed.
Fire Marshal Mike Willis was deployed to two areas before and after the hurricane as a member of the state’s All Hazards Incident Management System.
The team is made up of more than 100 members across the state who are willing to respond in the case of a disaster.
After the state’s experience with Hurricane Florence, it decided to pre-deploy more incident management teams so that it would be easier to get resources where they needed to be.
Willis and his team initially were assigned to Carteret County to help handle the night shift at the county’s emergency operations center, Willis said.
While Carteret County was bombarded with calls during Florence, it didn’t feel the effects of Dorian as heavily.
“It was very little impact,” Willis said. “We had a few calls. Mostly power outages and fire alarms, security alarms, that kind of thing. But we didn’t have to deploy any rescue missions in Carteret County for swift water. That was a good thing.”
Once Dorian had passed through the county, the emergency management director in Carteret County released Willis and his team.
But Ocracoke Island didn’t get so lucky.
Willis and his team, which had started home, were called back within about 30-45 minutes of being on the road to be redeployed to the island.
Some of the members of Willis’ team were flown over to Ocracoke Island, but Willis was shipped over on the first ferry after the storm.
Replacing fuel in the tank at the only gas station on the island was a top priority when crews first arrived, as well as supplies and people to get critical infrastructure up and running.
The storm had ransacked the island, though its arrival and departure were quick.
“The fire chief said within about 45 minutes the water went from somewhere around 3-4 feet, what they’re typically used to seeing in a bad storm, up to 10 feet in less than an hour,” Willis said. “He said it went down about as fast, but by then it had already been up in stuff.”
Meteorologists told emergency workers that the western side of the storm was a perfect fit in the Pamlico Sound and pulled all of the water up on the island, Willis said.
“All of the locals were very receptive and appreciative of everything we did,” he said.
A swift-water team from Buncombe County went through homes to make sure everyone was accounted for, Willis said.
“When I left, there were no fatalities that had been reported,” he said.
There were a lot of people who didn’t evacuate who wished they had, Willis said.
“To the native people, that’s the only house they’ve got,” he said. “There’s no place there to put a shelter. If they evacuate, they have to go inland.”
Willis pointed out that, in the worst-case scenario, if they evacuate and aren’t able to get back to the island, they might not have anywhere to go after a while.
“It’s a dilemma for them as to what to do,” he said. “It was definitely a historic flood for Hyde County and especially Ocracoke.”
Most of the damage was from water, Willis said.
“You pretty much lose everything,” he said.
Even some houses on stilts had some water damage, Willis said.
More than 400 houses had their building inspections pulled before Willis left, meaning that even though the power grid came back up, the houses couldn’t have power hooked up to them until repairs are made, he said.
It was a statewide effort to get the island back up and running.
Willis said he was thankful for the opportunity to go help in the eastern end of the state.
“I’m appreciative that the county allows me to participate and help other counties who are also willing to come help us should disaster strike Burke County,” he said.
No storm is the same, Willis said.
“Every time you go, regardless of how long you’ve been in it, you learn things,” he said.
Willis wasn’t the only person from Burke County to be deployed to eastern North Carolina for Dorian. A swift-water team with members from Burke County EMS and Oak Hill Fire and Rescue was deployed, as well as two staff members from the Burke County Emergency Communications Center.
“It’s good experience that we can apply here,” Willis said.