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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is gearing up for hurricane season (because it's right around the corner)


May 9th through 15th is 'Hurricane Preparedness Week,' but it’s not just residents that are, hopefully, going through their storm-season checklists. The United States Army Corps of Engineers are preparing, too, with a simulated hurricane.

A Category 4 hurricane is bearing down on the Cape Fear region and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are marshaling resources to meet the threat.

On paper, that is.

Sitting around a table in the Wilmington District office off of Market Street, the Army Corps ran a tabletop exercise early this month to test the district’s systems and plans.

The Coast Guard was present, as were various departments from the district that encompasses North Carolina and parts of Virginia. The storm in the exercise resembled 2018’s Hurricane Florence and as it approached, each member of the team updated what they’d be doing in the event it was real.

At the end of the day, the exercise was a dress rehearsal to make sure when the real thing happens -- they’ll be ready.

“I think based on North Carolina's exercise, the South Atlantic divisions exercise and our exercise, I think we have a good framework in place to be agile and to respond, if called upon," said Wilmington District Commander Col. Ben Bennett.

Bennett says the tabletop exercise reinforces the systems and procedures that have already been tested by past storms and works through contingencies so everyone is prepared.

North Carolina ranks in the top three most hurricane-prone states behind Florida, but ahead of Louisiana. Bennett is already a hurricane veteran. He took command of the district right before Hurricane Isaias hit last year.

Being the “nation’s engineers,” the Army Corps is often called in to supplement the local and state response with a focus on public works and engineering issues. The Wilmington District is part of a complex network of local, state, and federal organizations that handle disaster relief and recovery.

In the event of the storm, the Army Corps’ Wilmington District could be tapped for a variety of missions from debris removal to building temporary facilities and installing temporary generators. During Florence, it sourced repairs to Marine Ocean Terminal Sunny Point so the port could continue operations.

According to Janelle Mavis, chief of emergency management, there’s a lot the Corps might be asked to do.

“Hurricane is North Carolina's primary threat. So we had a large event came in there's debris everywhere, there's no power, there's a public infrastructure such as 911, call centers, hospitals, fire stations, etc, that's been damaged...So North Carolina is very robust, they have a tremendous amount of capabilities," Mavis said.

The Army Corps’ recent exercise comes about a month before the start of hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to the end of November and peaks in September, when several storms have hit Wilmington over the last few years. Mavis has worked close to 10 storms in her career and, by this point, she knows the deal.

“It just means that you know, I don't schedule vacations in, you know, September and October," she said.

Forecasters at Colorado State University are calling for an above-average 2021, with 17 named storms, eight hurricanes, and four major storms of category 3 or higher. Last year, there were six major storms and 30 named storms -- exhausting the 21-name alphabetical list for only the second time in over a century of recording. On average, from 1991 to 2020, a season sees 14 named storms, seven hurricanes, and three major storms.

For the Army Corp, hurricane season is busy because -- in addition to answering the call in the Cape Fear -- Mavis and others get tapped to assist other districts in the southeast. The biggest hurdle according to Mavis is COVID and communication. She said COVID is still an issue, meaning emergency teams will likely be smaller or working remotely. On the flip side, communication is the biggest hurdle, but COVID has improved their ability to work remotely.

“So telework has improved. So now it's not nearly as much downtime between when you're planning for the event, when the storm looks like it's gonna hit, you gotta allow people to take care of their families, and seek some sort of safe place that they want to be right out the storm, and then you obviously come back and assess your own personal house and things like that," Mavis said.

Both Mavis and Bennett were happy with the results of the exercise -- they feel Wilmington District’s staff is prepared for the 2021 hurricane season.

“I am confident that we have looked and done some solid analysis on the problem sets that we’ll be asked to do...They’re locked on, switched on, and prepared come June 1st to respond if called upon," Bennett said.

Kevin Maurer, a freelance journalist and Director of Community Engagement for Cape Fear Collective, co-wrote and contributed to this report.