Highlands a haven from Hurricane Florence

Imagine your home and business are directly in the path of Hurricane Florence. You grab what you can and you head to safety, which is exactly what Martin Lucas did from Newbern, N.C. Lucas has been staying at the Main Street Inn in Highlands since Thursday night.

“I just want to go home but if you go on Mapquest or something it says there are no routes available because of all the road closures,” he said. “There’s still no power there and there’s a curfew at night. They won’t let you in or out unless you’re a resident, but I can’t get there.”

Lucas lives in the historic downtown district of New Bern and knows his home has sustained damage. His business remains unscathed.

“My house is 7-feet off the river, so it’s probably flooded,” said Lucas. “But my business came through with no issues whatsoever.”

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Reeve’s Hardware Co., sold out of generators, and also sold a lot of batteries, flash lights and gas cans.

Lucas’ story is familiar to many who traveled to Highlands over the weekend to escape Hurricane Florence’s destruction. Initial projections of the storm’s path lead to Highlands, but the storm changed directions and town made it through with mild rain and wind. These initial projections caused many travelers to cancel their trips to Highlands to avoid being caught in the storm, but businesses weren’t taking chances and made preparations.

“Because of Irma last year we expected to sell out because of evacuees,” said General Manager of Park on Main in Highlands. “Instead we got a bunch of reservations cancelled from people taking vacations, but we filled back up with evacuees.”

He said many of the inn’s guests were from Charleston and the Outer Banks. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, Woods said the ownership waived all hotel fees for evacuees from the storm.

“In 20 years of being a GM I’ve never seen that happen,” said Woods. “Our overall goal was to reduce the amount of stress on evacuees. We wanted them to feel right at home.”

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Park on Main has a temporary generator that they installed after Hurricane Irma last year. The permanent generator will arrive soon.

Park on Main is known for being pet friendly and there is also a temporary generator on-site as a precaution since Irma last year.

“Last year we had a lot of locals stay here because their power wasn’t going to get turned on for 9 or 10 days,” he said.

Manager of Main Street Inn Claire Cameron said they had a few people fleeing the storm, including Lucas.

“We lost reservations because people were thinking it was going to come here,” said Cameron. “Those were replaced with people who then wanted to flee the storm, but then cancelled because they decided against it because it was going to miss them.”

She said the hotel had four vacancies Sunday night when at this time last year they would have been full.

Staff at Reeves Hardware Co. on Main Street learned some lessons from Irma last year and prepares when inclement weather is expected. Vice President of Reeves Joe Luke said they ordered heavy on generators when they thought the storm was going to hit town. Over the weekend he said they sold out of generators, and sold a lot of flashlights, batteries and gas cans.

“We sold a lot, but we didn’t see the rush we normally do,” said Luke. “A lot of people prepared early, which is good.”

Luke added that during some expected disasters, Reeves will put limits on the number of certain items a person can buy to make sure there’s enough for everyone.

“We try and make sure everyone gets the supplies they need in an emergency,” said Luke. “It keeps people from hogging it all up. That’s the fairest way I can think of.”

The Town of Highlands took precautions as well. With the storm expected to hit Highlands in full-force, the Town had two power crews on call in the area if the need arose.

“We enlisted two private line crews on Wednesday of last week in anticipation of Florence hitting Highlands,” said Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor in a statement. “They arrived on Saturday, and we provided lodging and food for them. Early Monday morning Director of Public Works, Lamar Nix, released them to go to hard hit areas where they were needed. When we anticipate bad weather we have to lineup support in advance. If we called during or after an event, crews would have already been deployed to other areas.  It’s better to be proactive in these potential emergency situations.”

Highlands Town Manager Josh Ward said the crews were from Knoxville, Tenn., and were on stand-by in case they were needed.

“We had no calls about storm-related problems so we dodged a bullet,” said Ward.

Highlands Police Department and Highlands Fire and Rescue both took precautions in case Florence did hit town.

“We had officers on-call in case we had unfortunate circumstances arrive,” said HPD Chief Bill Harrell. “But we didn’t get anything storm related so we’re really blessed.”

Harrell added the N.C. State highway Patrol reached out to law enforcement agencies throughout the state and asked for assistance in providing security for shelters out east.

“Unfortunately we didn’t have anyone to spare to help,” he said. “When we were initially in the hurricane’s path those officers I would have on-call would be gone.”

HFR Chief Ryan Gearhart said they did not receive any storm related calls. When the storm was projected to hit Highlands they prepared by getting all of their equipment ready. He discussed putting firefighters on-call but decided against it when projections of the storm changed.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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