How Drones Played a Key Role in N.C. Response to Hurricane Florence

Two hundred drone missions garnered some 8,000 photos and video, which helped the North Carolina Department of Transportation inform the public of where the dangerous infrastructure was.

by Jim McKay / May 16, 2019

North Carolina officials took notice of how drones played a critical part in monitoring flooding and infrastructure damage in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.

So, when Hurricane Florence began to pave a methodical path toward the state, North Carolina Department of Transportation officials were ready with 15 drone teams. As Florence made its presence felt, the drones took to the air, flying 200 missions and capturing some 8,000 photos and videos that helped state and federal agencies, including the DOT, make key decisions.

The photos and videos were set up on a SharePoint site where officials could view them, and then geotagged and uploaded on maps, offering a bird’s-eye view of cities, counties and neighborhoods.

“I think the volume of information that we were able to put out because of drones was of huge value for DOT and our mission for keeping people safe, because it really was able to get across that this is massive, this is everywhere, you’re putting yourself in danger if you go out and try to drive right now,” said James Pearce, DOT communications officer.

As a Category 1 storm, Florence killed 45 people in North Carolina. The storm weakened in terms of wind, but the rain caused massive and dangerous flooding.  The pictures and videos from the drones not only helped officials know where danger spots were, but also helped inform the public of how dangerous the situation was.

“The public information aspect of it was a revelation,” Pearce said. “We are able to explain to people, ‘This is why there are new road closures days into the storm.’ I could take the pictures and immediately have them on social media and they would get picked up by the media. People understood that we weren’t just closing roads because we felt like it; there was real danger.”

The pictures and video gave officials a clear picture of what was happening on the ground without having to get in a helicopter or drive in unsafe conditions as they would have in the past. “We were able to communicate with them, ‘OK, we need this road closed, we can use this route to get around, that kind of thing,”’ Pearce said.

One of the keys to the whole operation was the lead time afforded the drone teams by the slow-moving storm, and also the knowledge gained from visiting officials in Houston and learning best practices from them.

“Because it was a slow-moving storm over a four- or five-day period, we were able to get out to areas that we had identified as being the most heavily impacted to fly missions and — for really the first time ever — got a full, immediate picture of the damage that was being done by the flooding,” Pearce said. “One of the lessons learned from them was that this could end up being bigger than you’re able to handle, so get some capacity ahead of time that’s ready to go day one.”

So, North Carolina assembled the drone teams ahead of time just in case. The teams were composed of DOT staff, highway patrol staff and some external contracted teams that had been worked out weeks ahead of time.

“We knew we were going to have to go beyond our own capacity and bring in some outside drone pilots and teams,” Pearce said. “They were top-level pilots who were prequalified and had flown similar missions.”