ATLANTA – Just months ago, disaster planners simulated a Category 4 hurricane strike alarmingly similar to the real-word scenario now unfolding on a dangerously vulnerable stretch of the East Coast.
A fictional “Hurricane Cora” barreled into southeast Virginia and up the Chesapeake Bay to strike Washington, D.C., in the narrative created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Argonne National Laboratory.
The result was catastrophic damage, which has some experts concerned that Hurricane Florence could produce a disaster comparable to 2005's Hurricane Katrina and in a part of the country that is famously difficult to evacuate.
The simulated hurricane knocked out power for most gas stations in the Mid-Atlantic region, damaged a nuclear power plant and sent debris into major shipping channels, among other problems, according to a Department of Energy simulation manual.
“What they were trying to do was create a worst-case scenario, but it's a very realistic scenario,” said Joshua Behr, a research professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University who is involved in disaster modeling and simulations.
Senior leaders from the White House, along with more than 91 federal departments and agencies, participated in the “national level exercise” in late April and early May, FEMA said.
The heavy rain expected from Hurricane Florence could flood hog manure pits, coal ash dumps and other industrial sites in North Carolina, creating a noxious witches' brew of waste that might wash into homes and threaten drinking water supplies.
Computer models predict more than 3 feet of rain in the eastern part of the state, a fertile low-lying plain veined by brackish rivers with a propensity for escaping their banks.
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd came ashore near Cape Fear as a Category 2 storm that dumped about 2 feet of water on a region already soaked days earlier by Hurricane Dennis. The result was the worst natural disaster in state history, a flood that killed dozens of people and left whole towns underwater.
The bloated carcasses of hundreds of thousands of hogs, chickens and other drowned livestock bobbed in a nose-stinging soup of fecal matter, pesticides, fertilizer and gasoline so toxic that fish flopped helplessly on the surface to escape it. Rescue workers smeared Vick's Vapo-Rub under their noses to try to numb their senses against the stench.
Horses to be OK
For many vacationers on North Carolina's Outer Banks, a trip there is not complete without at least catching a glimpse of the majestic wild horses that roam the islands.
As Hurricane Florence approaches, many are expressing concern about how the horses will fare during a powerful Category 4 storm.
The Facebook page of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund was peppered with comments from worried tourists and residents.
Wildlife experts say they needn't worry. Wild horses are believed to have first settled on the Outer Banks hundreds of years ago and have survived many powerful storms.
Sue Stuska, a wildlife biologist based at Cape Lookout National Seashore, where 118 wild horses live on Shackleford Banks, said the horses are highly sensitive to weather changes and instinctively know what to do in a storm.
She said they go to higher ground during flooding, including the dunes, and head for shrub thickets and a maritime forest during high winds.
“Naturally, they are meant to be outside and they have high ground and they have thick places to hide,” Stuska said.
“Don't worry about them. They've survived for hundreds of years, and we expect that they'll be just fine.”
With a powerful hurricane bearing down on the southeast coast, President Donald Trump on Tuesday turned attention back to the federal government's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico a year ago, deeming it “incredibly successful” even though a recent federal report found that nearly 3,000 people died.
The administration's efforts in Puerto Rico received widespread criticism.
But after visiting the island last September, Trump said that Puerto Ricans were fortunate that the storm did not yield a catastrophe akin to the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.
All told, about 1,800 people died in that 2005 storm. Puerto Rico's governor last month raised the U.S. territory's official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975.
The storm is also estimated to have caused $100 billion in damage.
“I actually think it was one of the best jobs that's ever been done with respect to what this is all about,” Trump said Tuesday of the response in Puerto Rico, suggesting that it was made more difficult by the “island nature” of the storm site.
The president praised the response to the series of storms that battered the United States last year, saying, “I think Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success. Texas we've been given A-pluses for. Florida we've been given A-pluses for.”