HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — State emergency officials are standing by Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to order the mandatory evacuation of about 245,000 people living in flood-prone areas of Virginia ahead of Hurricane Florence.
“The inconvenience of evacuating inland and then going home is far better than dying from storm surge or the winds,” said Virginia State Coordinator of Emergency Management Jeff Stern.
Northam issued the mandatory evacuation for residents living in Zone A on Sept. 10 — about four days before the then category 4 hurricane was estimated to make landfall between South Carolina and Virginia.
Two days later, Hurricane Florence’s path shifted southward, dramatically decreasing the likelihood of storm-related damage in Hampton Roads.
Still, state and local officials continued to encourage Zone A residents — those living in the most flood-prone areas in the Commonwealth — to flee their homes ahead of the storm.
Stern said the decision to order a mandatory evacuation came with consideration to the forecasts of experts at the National Hurricane Center, as well as conversations with leaders of localities that could have been affected by the hurricane.
“It was data driven, it was not based on intuition,” Stern said of the decision to evacuate.
Stern added that officials had a “narrow mobilization” timeline to order the evacuation, taking into consideration Hampton Roads’ high-density population, limited transportation and the amount of time it would take for schools to convert into shelters.
“Local CAOs (chief administration officers) and mayors were adamant that it would be more helpful for them to make a definitive evacuation on Monday so schools could make decisions and give staff time to prepare,” Stern said.
Northam’s order ahead of the storm was the first time that the state’s new “Know Your Zone” hurricane evacuation plan was put into practice. The site that allows people to look up their zone via address crashed shortly after the evacuation was ordered due to high online traffic.
“It was designed for exactly this kind of situation,” Stern said, adding that the old system would have called for all of Hampton Roads to evacuate.
Stern said that the Governor’s office and VDEM will speak with localities and analyze the results of the evacuation over the next several months to determine if changes need to be made to the plan.
He also added that the Commonwealth has yet to spend the entire $60 million Northam put aside to mobilize state emergency shelters. As of Monday, the Commonwealth spent about $41 million of that total budget on Hurricane Florence. Stern said that it’s likely the state will see about 75 percent of that money back through FEMA disaster aid, but that price tag doesn’t include what localities spent on Hurricane Florence preparations.
Stern said that Virginia is offering aid to North Carolina and has sent emergency officials there to help the state respond to the impacts of Hurricane Florence, which caused major storm surge and flooding in areas like Wilmington and New Bern and killed 17 people.
“Our fortune comes at the misfortune of fellow Americans,” he said. “It could have, and would have, been us if the storm had taken a northerly shift.”