ELIZABETHTOWN — On Friday, N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson stopped in Elizabethtown to give an update on the DOT’s statewide efforts to repair infrastructure damaged during Hurricane Matthew. During his stop, he assessed the state’s response.
”I feel like we did as good a job as we could do,” he said. “We were staffed up and ready to go. The integration of groups was extraordinarily well done.”
Emergency personnel have made numerous comparisons between Hurricane Matthew and 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, which also brought record-breaking rain and flooding to eastern North Carolina. A unique situation in Matthew, however, was created by technology and was one of the state’s takeaways from the event.
“One of the big things we learned is that people trust a GPS more than they trust detour signs,” said Tennyson. “We have to make sure we tell them to follow detours. The governor said over and over not to drive through water, and still people drove around barricades. Communication is first, and we need to make sure we’re getting the message out to people.”
While he did say the state will be working to improve connections with online mapping systems, he did stress the need for old-fashioned common sense.
“People do have a responsibility to drive reasonably, pay attention, and have their seat belts on,” he said.
The secretary also noted the need for increased communication with power companies. One of the problems that arose came about because power companies were waiting on DOT to repair roads so they could get to power lines, and DOT personnel were awaiting removal of power lines from roads so they could begin repair.
“I think we learned to make sure we are establishing good processes with power companies, to make sure we’re telling them where we’ve cleared,” said Tennyson.
At its peak, more than 600 roads were affected in some way by the storm, and about 80 percent of them have been at least temporarily repaired. Tennyson didn’t give a timeline for complete restoration, but did note the huge and beneficent effort being made by contractors to complete the work as quickly as possible. In addition, following the storm, DOT had 2,300 employees directly working on recovery and 350 divisions from the western part of the state that brought equipment and personnel.
“The I-95 closure had the potential of being a long-term disruption, but … Gov. McCrory said he was blown away by how quickly that got reopened,” said Tennyson.
“Directly after the flooding, there was a fire on I-95, and we were wondering if locusts would be next,” he joked.
If North Carolina handled the disaster correctly, however, it started well before Matthew was even a thought. In fact, Tennyson sees preparation beginning years ago.
“It starts with having enough money and making sure the state’s rainy day fund is kept intact,” he explained. “Gov. McCrory added to that, so we don’t have to worry about how to pay. There’s not any question that we’re covered.”
As for which roads get handled first, he said the determination process has changed in recent years.
“In 2013, Gov. McCrory, as part of his 25-year transportation plan, introduced a prioritization system to get politics out of road building and go to a transparent system to make sure we were getting support for all modes of transportation,” Tennyson explained. “In this system, five criteria are inspected: safety, economic impact, connection to intermodal centers or military bases, cost/benefit, and congestion.”
This purely data-driven number is weighted with input from local elected officials who have assigned points to projects, and about 20 percent of the projects are funded.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.