Here comes Hanna

Published 3:42 pm Friday, September 5, 2008

FRANKLIN—With Tropical Storm Hanna aiming for coastal Carolina, area emergency planners are gearing up for heavy rain and strong winds.

But their attention is divided between Hanna, expected never to be anything stronger than a weak hurricane, and Ike, which was already a Category 4 hurricane Thursday afternoon as it headed for the Bahamas.

Hanna is expected to dump 2 inches to 4 inches of rain as its outer bands move in late Friday and early Saturday. Based on projections Thursday afternoon, it is expected to have been downgraded to a tropical storm again when it passes through the area, bringing sustained winds of 25 mph to 40 mph and gusts up to 55 mph.

The latest National Weather Service storm track Thursday evening showed Hanna passing over Hampton Roads, putting the Franklin area on the storm’s western, weaker side, Franklin Fire Chief Vince Holt said Thursday.

Holt and other area emergency coordinators said they have been participating in Weather Service conference calls regarding the storm for the past couple of days in order to get a feel for what kind of response to set in motion.

Both the city and its neighboring counties intend during morning meetings today to make last-minute adjustments to their plans. Among those adjustments would be any decisions to open shelters.

Gov. Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency in the commonwealth on Thursday morning, and local government emergency coordinators were considering the need to do the same for their own communities.

By declaring a state of emergency, the governor has authorized state agencies to identify and position resources for quick response anywhere they are needed throughout the state.

A similar declaration at the local level also puts into motion plans to open shelters and alert emergency services personnel to be at a higher level of readiness.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Kaine said extra staff members have been brought into the state’s emergency operations center. The federal government, he added, is sending advance FEMA teams to Virginia.

“We’re pretty much on standby right now,” Isle of Wight spokesman Don Robertson said Thursday morning. “At this point, we’re really just kind of making sure that all the troops are getting everything in order.”

Robertson said he expected Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors to be asked Thursday afternoon to make an official state-of-emergency declaration.

In Franklin, Holt said the city had not made such a declaration, and he said it was unlikely emergency officials would do so unless there were major changes in Hanna’s projected path or intensity.

Even flooding ranks as only a minor Hanna-related concern for Holt and other emergency planners. Drought conditions and extremely low river levels leave the Blackwater and Nottoway in an excellent position to handle rain from the storm, they said Thursday.

“There’s lots of room in the river right now,” Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said during an emergency-services briefing at the courthouse Thursday afternoon.

The Nottoway River was less than 5 feet deep—and trending downward—at the Sebrell gauge Thursday morning, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Blackwater River was just a bit over 1.5 feet. Both rivers could handle significantly more water before reaching flood stage.

What makes area officials wary, however, are Ike and Josephine, the two storms crossing the Atlantic behind Hanna. Multiple storms bringing significant rainfall brought on the floods that drowned downtown Franklin in 1999, and officials are keeping a close watch on river gauges in case the conditions repeat themselves this year.

“Even if we dodge a bullet this weekend (with Hanna), we could be back here next week (with Ike),” Johnson told the 20 representatives at the emergency planning session Thursday.

Worried about the possibility of a repeat of 1999’s situation, Jeff Turner, who heads up the Blackwater-Nottoway Riverkeeper Program, sent an e-mail to officials in Franklin, Southampton and Isle of Wight Thursday afternoon.

“Let’s pray it does not get as bad as ’99,” he wrote. “But let’s be more prepared, or at least be as prepared as a community can be during these events.”

Franklin’s Holt seemed to agree: “We’re definitely watching the ones that are stacking up behind (Hanna),” he said. “We’re planning for the worst, but hoping for the best.”