A massive hurricane – featuring sustained winds of 145 mph – was about to make landfall in the Outer Banks of North Carolina forcing the mayor to evacuate of Ocean City.
The year was 1985 and the hurricane was Gloria – according to some reports the strongest storm to hit the East Coast in recorded history — and the mayor was Roland “Fish” Powell.
More than 25 years later history repeated itself with Rick Meehan at the helm of the evacuation (he was a rookie council member at the time of Gloria) in the wake of Hurricane Irene.
“It was so long ago, but I learned a lot from how Fish Powell handled Gloria. I knew the drill, the town was prepared and city personnel lived up to what I expected,” Meehan said.
Meehan said the track and the predictions for Irene exceeded the expectations of Gloria.
“So that got our attention quick. Although there were some differences between this storm and that, we weighed on the side of safety.”
The town had long been prepared for such an eventuality.
“We had a plan and we followed it correctly. The execution takes a little time. The first action concerned the students staying with us,” he said.
Ocean City employs a large number of local and international students during the summer, and part of the evacuation plan is to return visitors to their primary residence. However, there is neither a provision to return thousands of students to Eastern Europe, nor is there the diplomatic infrastructure available to answer for potentially injured guest workers.
“We transported them first to Purdue Stadium in Salisbury and then to Baltimore. Governor O’Malley told me he was entertaining 2,200 of our finest guests,” Meehan said.
Once the students were cleared the town could move to vacationers.
“We needed to not only get them out, but get them out in time to make it to their homes safely,” Meehan explained.
Irene was expected to maintain hurricane-force winds 100 miles from her eye; and tropical storm winds for 200 miles from her epicenter.
Here is where Meehan said he thinks the message got away from him a little bit.
“We declared Phase 3 in effect at midnight so we could close down the bars – we never intended for people to leave then, but some did. We acted properly, but as tightly as we tried to control communications we still had some problems.”
In the scheme of things, Meehan admits that it may have angered some visitors who received mixed messages but he retains a strong sense of faith in his community.
“This is a reinforced resilient community. There are people facing problems, and we know it could very well have been us,” he offered,” But I think we can get them back. I did interviews from the Boardwalk to show everything was OK and to invite everyone back.”
Irene may not have ended up to be the storm it could have b
een – and there’s a lot to be thankful for in that – but the evacuation and subsequent repopulation of Ocean City demonstrated the Town has a plan, it worked and could be implemented again if the situation warrants.