Democracy Dies in Darkness

Capital Weather Gang

‘Nothing to play with:’ FEMA chief’s Hurricane Florence alarm draws on vivid memories of Hugo

September 11, 2018 at 5:32 PM

President Trump holds an Oval Office meeting on hurricane preparations as FEMA Administrator Brock Long points to the potential track of Hurricane Florence. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

William “Brock” Long was 14 when Hurricane Hugo pummeled his hometown of Newton, N.C.

He and his family hunkered down. They lost power for 10 days, and he would be out of school for two weeks. The Charlotte Observer called the evening Hugo made landfall, in September 1989, a “Night of Fury.”

Even though Newton is 300 miles inland, the city felt Hugo's wrath.

"It sounded like the whole roof was being ripped off,” one resident told the Hickory Record, a newspaper near Long's hometown.

Area schools were converted to shelters for the displaced, more than 30,000 homes and businesses were without power, and drinking water was declared unsafe, the paper reported.

Nearly 30 years later, Long, who now runs the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is using that memory to warn his fellow North Carolinians about the dangers of a storm that bears frightening resemblance to Hugo: Hurricane Florence.

Hugo “came right over my house,” Long told CBS on Tuesday morning. “This storm is setting up to be very similar to that one."

Parts of buildings clutter the streets of Charleston, S.C. on Sept. 22, 1989, after Hurricane Hugo swept through the city. (Lou Krasky/Associated Press)

Hurricane Hugo was the last Category 4 storm to make landfall in the Carolinas. It crashed into the coast just north of Charleston on Sept. 22, 1989. It lurched north toward Charlotte and crossed the state line that same day, bringing gusts that reached nearly 100 mph.

As the storm moved over Newton — then a city of about 10,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains — it dragged down trees and power lines, crushing cars and houses.

In the days that followed, the Hickory Record published photographs of the wreckage. Falling timber trapped one boy in his family's home. The storm shattered shop windows, which owners replaced them with plywood sporting the painted message, “I saw Hugo!”

Hurricane Hugo killed 50 people in the United States and the Caribbean. It was one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, accounting for $14 billion in inflation-adjusted damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.

On Monday, that center said Hurricane Florence is rapidly intensifying over the Atlantic Ocean and is now a major hurricane, with winds near 130 mph. Florence was upgraded from Category 3 to Category 4 on Monday and is expected to strengthen further before making landfall Thursday night or Friday morning.

In a Tuesday afternoon briefing with President Trump, Long emphasized the storm's "very devastating" potential, warning residents they'll be displaced from their homes and could go without power "for weeks."

That Florence sports even a passing resemblance to its fearsome forerunner is cause for concern, Long said in the CBS interview.

"It’s not a question of if Florence is going to impact the Carolinas and Virginia — it’s going to, and it’s going to be a devastating storm,” Long said.

"This is nothing to play with,” he added.

Long's Carolina connection comforted some observers as the storm churned closer to shore.

“I also talked to FEMA Administrator Brock Long this morning,” said Gov. Roy Cooper (D), attempting to reassure residents in a Monday news conference. “He is from North Carolina. He knows our state well."

The head of a North Carolina think tank tweeted of Long, “His personal knowledge and relationships are hopefully helpful in this scary situation.”

An editor at a Charlotte television station endorsed Long's local credentials, too, commenting that, “If any FEMA director knows North Carolina, it's Brock Long. He's from here.”

But that tie to his home state — where his family still lives — also brought scrutiny just as Florence was hours from impacting the Carolina coast.

On Thursday, Politico reported that Long was under investigation for his use of company cars to travel from Washington, where he works, to his home in North Carolina on the weekends. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who is Long’s boss, reportedly confronted Long over his frequent absences from the office.

Long grew up in Newton, about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte, attended an area high school and went to college at Appalachian State University, in nearby Boone. There, he earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's in public administration.

He has spent his career in emergency management, both in the private and the public sector, including a previous stint at FEMA, where he worked during Hurricane Katrina — one of the most controversial times in the agency's history. There, he was a hurricane program manager, though Louisiana was not in his jurisdiction.

In 2008, Long became the director of Alabama's emergency management agency, where he oversaw the state's response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Those who know Long professionally say he's devoted to his field.

“He has a real enthusiasm for emergency management,” Mark Bradbury told the Charlotte Observer. Bradbury is an Appalachian State professor who has invited Long back to his alma mater to speak to students.

“He wants it done well,” Bradbury said. “And he’s really tireless. Always a genuine enthusiasm in a positive way.”

Long was one of the few Trump appointees whose nomination went smoothly. The Senate confirmed Long 95 to 4, with the only nay votes coming from Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), along with Brian Schatz (Hawaii).

The FEMA administrator rose to prominence after last year's hectic hurricane season brought devastation to a large swath of the country. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, Long appeared on cable and network news shows, promoting disaster preparedness and defending his agency's responses to the flurry of storms.

Long and FEMA faced criticism for and admitted failures in the response to Maria in Puerto Rico. A recent internal report said agency officials on the ground “lacked situational awareness early in the response."

Hurricane Maria was devastating, leaving millions of U.S. citizens suffering — without power or reliable communication and infrastructure. According to the report, FEMA wasn't ready.

But Long wants residents of his home state and its neighbors to be on guard for Florence.

He tweeted Tuesday afternoon that Florence “could be the most dangerous storm in the history of the Carolinas,” and he has said in multiple interviews that he expects the storm to be a “statewide event” — just like Hugo, which traveled all the way to his home in western North Carolina.

On Tuesday morning, even before there was a mandatory evacuation order along the Carolina coast, Long told CNN that, “I believe that people should be evacuating."

Flee inland, he told residents, and make a break for it like it's 1989.

Garland Meadows boards up the front windows of a Redix store in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., on Tuesday. Mandatory evacuations were imposed for parts of several East Coast states Tuesday as millions of Americans prepared for what could become one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to hit the Eastern Seaboard in decades. (Matt Born/(Wilmington) Star-News/AP)

Read more:

Category 4 Hurricane Florence drawing closer to Carolinas and threatens ‘catastrophic’ flooding

‘Absolutely, totally prepared’: Trump says the government is ready as Florence approaches

What you need to know: Emergency supply kit | Storm timing | Path projections


Reis Thebault is a reporter covering national and breaking news. He has worked on the local desks of the Boston Globe and the Columbus Dispatch. He joined The Washington Post as an intern in June 2018.

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