A Voice in the Storm
When information saves lives
By Dana Sachs
Amy McLane: Community Organizer
Right before Hurricane Florence hit our area in 2018, you and several others started a Facebook page that’s now called Wilmington NC/Cape Fear Hurricane Recovery and Preparedness. The page has grown to 7,700 members and become an important local resource. What inspired you to create it?
It started before Florence with me making a list of everything I needed to do and feeling a tremendous sense of anxiety. At one point, Florence was a Category Four hurricane, and it was really frightening. I learned where to get information, which would be the best news sources. I downloaded emergency alerts. I located a bunch of municipal websites where I could get information during the storm. I put all this information into a big list, and I thought, “I’m going to post this information on Facebook.” Then, one of my friends said, “This could be useful to other people. You ought to start a page to share hurricane information.” I said, “I don’t have time to set up a page. I’m getting ready for a hurricane.” So five of us — Leslie Hudson, Veronica Carter, Joanne Levitan, Alice Melott and I — teamed up. Pretty soon, we started to get dozens, and then hundreds, of requests to join.
What need did it fill?
I think it served as an information hub, first in Florence and then in Dorian. Unlike, for example, the municipal websites, people could ask us and each other questions here. They could talk about their own experiences with others in their own community, which I think they found comforting. We were going through the same things and lived in the same places they did, which was the three counties of Brunswick, Pender and New Hanover.
How well did the page work the first time, during Florence?
You can feel really isolated during a storm, especially when all the traditional communication goes down. During the height of it, people would ask each other, “What are you experiencing?” In Florence, we lost cell service in Wilmington for a while, but two of the site’s administrators had evacuated, so they could still follow the news and provide information.
It must have taken a lot of time to keep the site functioning.
It did, but it gave me something to do. Once you get your preparations done, you’re waiting. When the storm came, I would sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up and check on the page, get rid of stuff that had become dated. And then, in the immediate aftermath, you almost become like a reporter. People would ask, “Is your power out?” “Have you gotten your power back on?” And then people started asking each other how to get back home. Where can you find things? Where can you find gas? Is there a grocery store open yet? What are the lines like?
You’ve said that you want the site to function through four stages of a storm: “Getting Ready,” “Landfall,” “Immediate Aftermath,” and “Planning for a Better Outcome Next Time.” How do we plan for a better outcome next time?
For a lot of people, Florence isn’t over. I still have neighbors who aren’t back in their houses yet. How a community responds to a storm tells us about that community. What does it mean to be resilient? What do we need to do so that next time a storm comes the impact won’t be as severe, the cost won’t be as high, the pain that people suffered won’t be as great? That conversation is going on all over the community now. The Facebook page is a way to take part in that conversation.
What kinds of ideas are people discussing?
I’m particularly sensitive to this because I’m a civil engineer by profession. People are talking about flooding. Nuisance flooding. Flooding after heavy rainstorms. And they’re making that connection to infrastructure, development patterns, impervious surfaces. Ten or 15 years go by without a bad storm event and people have the luxury of not thinking about those things. Often, you don’t know where the weaknesses are until a big storm comes. Once you know those weaknesses, what do you do about it?
Are people starting to pay more attention to infrastructure?
Every community struggles with having adequate funds to build, upgrade and maintain infrastructure. Wilmington has the challenges of an older city with an aging infrastructure. At the same time, our population is growing a lot. And so that infrastructure is seeing increased use and stress. Every additional square foot of impervious surface — like parking lots — adds to those challenges. Ten acres of woods doesn’t generate any tax revenue or income, but it provides stormwater services that cost nothing. The hurricanes and their impacts really highlighted those issues.
To a large extent, your Facebook page is crowdsourcing public safety information.
Some public safety information, but also practical stuff, like when’s the trash pickup going to start again?
What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of this kind of a model?
As a civil engineer, I think of safety as a huge issue. We are careful on the page to tell people that we are not a substitute for emergency management. We’re going to share public safety information, but if you have an issue, you need to go to them. We’re just a group of people living in the community. We share information from the experts. We only used weather information from the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center, and local meteorologists. There’s all kinds of amateurs out there who do weather predictions. Some of those folks are really good. Some are just trying to make money. The more they try to frighten, the more people look at their page.
Has the frequency of hurricanes affected your feelings about living here?
I feel more connected to the community as a result of going through the storms, but I also am worried about the risk. My whole extended family lives in Wilmington.
What will you do if another storm comes our way?
Probably the same thing I did with Dorian. I just started posting again. I had people tell me that they didn’t feel so alone.
Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.