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Avery County Issues a State of Emergency Due to Tropical Cyclone Florence

By Tim Gardner

The North Carolina High Country is likely to get pounded with heavy rain and possibly have various emergency problems caused by Hurricane Florence (Tropical Cyclone) starting Saturday and continuing into Tuesday. And as a result, Avery County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Martha Hicks has issued a State of Emergency for the entire county beginning at 12:00 noon on Saturday. It will remain in effect until all possible dangers from the hurricane end.

A provision of the State of Emergency order is that the county may enforce a curfew between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. each day it remains in effect. Restricted business operations and access to certain areas and buildings may also be implemented in the county according to the State of Emergency declaration.

Florence, which twice reached monster Category 4 status before being downgraded to a Category One Hurricane or tropical cyclone, moved onshore along the Carolinas coast this morning and will be slowly progressing westward across the Carolinas later today, reaching the High Country early Saturday. The hurricane will gradually weaken, but its remnants will affect this region through early next week. Heavy rain will continue even after winds from it taper off. Soils will become saturated and flash flooding is likely to develop.

The latest National Weather Service forecast has all counties in the North Carolina Mountains, East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia under a flash flood watch Saturday until Tuesday. A flash flood watch means that conditions may develop that lead to flash flooding. Flash Flood Warnings, which mean flooding is, or should soon be occurring, are also likely to be issued.

The brunt of the storm here is predicted to be Saturday and Sunday with 4 to 10 inches of rain generally expected with isolated higher amounts, particularly along the east and south sides of mountain ridges including the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

The worst-case scenario is 12 to 17 inches of rain within the Saturday-Tuesday time frame, according to meteorologists.

Heavy winds of 20-30 miles-per-hour with gusts up to approximately 50 mph are expected at times across the High Country Saturday until Tuesday.

Life-threatening happenings could develop, especially where the rain falls on soils left saturated by earlier rainfall. Mudslides could occur and streams and creeks may rise quickly during heavy rain and flood nearby low-lying areas. Larger rivers may eventually rise to flood stage as well.

Emergency personnel continue to remind residents to not drive, walk or try to swim across flooded streets or roadways. Also, in hilly and mountainous terrain, there are hundreds of low-water crossings which can be dangerous in heavy rain. Hikers, campers and other individuals outdoors should immediately seek high ground during heavy rains and flooding and avoid all streams.  

A preparation meeting between its emergency responders and key county officials was held in Avery last Tuesday and Paul Buchanan, the county’s Emergency Management Coordinator and Assistant Fire Marshall said its emergency personnel are ready to combat weather and related problems caused by the hurricane.

“Hopefully, we’ll only have minimal problems here resulting from Florence, but I assure all Avery County residents and others in the county that our fire, rescue and other emergency departments are well-prepared to handle all problems and emergencies from it. We’re on high alert,” he stated.

Buchanan added that emergency calls will be prioritized and the appropriate and expedient response will be given. He said emergency officials also have personnel ready to aid with water rescue calls if the need arises.

Avery has set up a temporary Emergency Operations Center in the Commissioners’ Board Room at the County’s Administration Building in Newland where county officials and those from its multiple emergency departments will be stationed throughout Florence’s duration.

“Our operations center is a big asset as county and emergency officials can all work together from one place to react promptly and make sure all calls and emergencies are handled in the most organized and best way. And our 911 Center is always manned 24 hours a day; seven days a week, so Avery County couldn’t be any more ready than we are for Florence,” Buchanan commented.

Avery is keeping all its active and volunteer emergency personnel in the county to handle any problems that happen from Florence. But Buchanan noted that they are on standby to help neighboring counties such as Watauga, Caldwell, Mitchell, Burke, McDowell and Carter (Tennessee) if requested by officials from those counties.

He added that emergency personnel from Avery County could also be sent to the coast or other areas to help with their emergencies if requested by their officials.

“Our plan is to make sure all our citizens and other people in Avery are out of danger before any of our emergency personnel would be sent to other places,” Buchanan said. “Mitchell County has sent a Swift Water Rescue Team to the coast and I understand Caldwell also has sent some of its emergency workers down there too. Therefore, we would send some of our personnel to our nearby counties if they had emergency problems arise and needed our help to make up for the personnel they don’t have in place. And we could send some to the coast or other places that were nailed by Florence. But our first priority, of course, is Avery County.”

Buchanan also noted that the State’s Emergency Management Service could order personnel from Avery or any North Carolina county to go to the coast or any other region to assist emergency workers in those places, but that Avery has not received any such directives.

Electricity outages are also expected in the area because of Florence. Buchanan said shelters will be set up in Avery County if necessary with the first one being in the Old Rock Gymnasium adjacent to Newland Elementary School.

He added that the county will not open a shelter just because of power outages. The only exceptions would be if the outages are widespread for a number of days and if there is heavy flooding throughout the county.

Anyone with special needs who may end up in a shelter should bring with them all their essentials, including oxygen tanks, medications or a home health care worker.

Service animals are allowed in the shelters and would be allowed to sleep in the same quarters as humans.

Buchanan said non-service animals could be housed at the county’s new cooperative extension service building on Vale Road in Newland if necessary.

Avery State of Emergency declaration