North Carolina didn't need FEMA to weather Hurricane Florence

The hurricane response efforts took shape in North Carolina’s counties and towns, largely independent of federal authorities.
September 18, 2018, 12:39am

JACKSONVILLE, North Carolina — Onslow County Manager David Cotton has been camped out dealing with the Hurricane Florence response at the county’s Emergency Operations Center since Wednesday.

During that time, he’s only slept for six hours.

“Everything was so fast-paced. High-tempo decisions having to be made in the middle of the night: Opening shelters, how should we do this, weighing in on critical decisions all throughout this evolution," Cotton told VICE News Monday morning.

By then the storm had just about passed and the sun was out in Jacksonville, the Onslow County seat and the town where the Emergency Operations Center is based. But Cotton won't be resting anytime soon.

“We’re moving out of the sprint phase and moving into more of a marathon of the recovery,” he said.

This is the epicenter of the emergency response effort for the entire county, which lies just 50 miles north of where the eye of the storm hit when it first made landfall on the North Carolina coast. While the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long, faced controversy in Washington over his alleged misuse of government vehicles, the hurricane response efforts took shape in North Carolina’s counties and towns, independent of the federal authorities and their support.

The heads of all the county’s key departments — police, fire, transportation and others — all gathered in a single, windowless room for the entirety of the storm, snatching sleep whenever possible on cots tucked into side offices.

Cotton oversaw the entire operation and eventually called in federal support as the storm caused historic levels of flooding across the region. County officials made direct calls to the National Guard, Coast Guard, and Marines from Camp Lejeune for additional resources as flooding became too much for local authorities to handle.

They largely left FEMA out of it, and that was intentional: Cotton said emergencies are better handled by the staff on the ground, and that the federal agency will come in to support recovery efforts, which could last as long as two years.

Long, for his part, defended FEMA against criticism of its handling of past natural disasters, telling VICE News that, "There are some unrealistic expectations placed on this agency."

"The disaster response works best when it's locally executed, state managed and federally supported. FEMA is not a first responder," Long said.

This segment originally aired September 17, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.